Purdue HHS alumna takes nursing mental health initiative, Operation Happy Nurse, international

Shannon McPeek

Shannon McPeek

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

While her passion for nurses’ mental health awareness predated the COVID-19 pandemic, Shannon McPeek launched her nonprofit organization, Operation Happy Nurse, at the height of the pandemic, which was also a peak of mental strain on thousands of nurses nationwide.

A 2016 alumna of the Purdue University School of Nursing, McPeek’s website traffic exploded two years later. And, as the world reopened from pandemic restrictions, McPeek became an in-demand public speaker, extolling the importance of nurses taking great care of their mental health as well as the benefits of Operation Happy Nurse.

One speaking engagement brought her back to her alma mater in West Lafayette. In March 2022, she got to visit with Nursing faculty and meet students who are preparing to enter the field. McPeek talked about the importance of keeping tabs on their mental health, even while they are still nursing students.

“I felt a lot of acceptance and excitement from the student nurse community at Purdue — wanting to learn more, wanting to get on top of their mental health —  so that we can kickstart positive coping mechanisms prior to the students entering the field,” McPeek said.

McPeek and her many volunteers scattered across the country have led programs, such as Fitness for the Caregivers, in all 50 states and six Canadian provinces. She received interest from Australia and some European countries as well. This growth and dedication earned McPeek multiple awards: a 2022 L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth honor and an Early Career Achievement Award from Purdue’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

Living in San Diego, McPeek is still a per diem nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Lately, she relieves nurses so they can go on a meal break. In California, many hospitals have nurses who will take over patient assignments while nurses take breaks to be sure the patients are adequately cared for and the rest of the staff remains in safe nurse-to-patient ratios. Allowing nurses to recharge while not putting additional stress on other nurses falls in line with Operation Happy Nurse’s mantra.

Always an advocate

Nurse-to-patient ratios are an issue McPeek and Operation Happy Nurse are currently focusing on. In the NICU, for example, nurses should not have more than three patients at a time, according to McPeek.

McPeek revealed patients and patients’ families can have a role in trying to keep patient-to-nurse ratios manageable.

“One thing you can do as a patient to help your nurses is to ask the manager, ask the people at the hospital what the nurse-to-patient ratio is because change can happen at the nurse level and the patient level. To be safe as a patient, that nurse needs to be in an adequate ratio,” McPeek explained. “Advocating for the nurses taking care of you to have safe patient assignments is a huge way to help the mental health of the nursing community.”

Decreasing nurse burnout is essential. A study in 2022 found 34% of nurses surveyed said they were going to leave their jobs by the end of that year. Almost one-third (32%) planned to leave the field altogether or retire.

“There’s a lot that needs to change in the nursing profession to really help decrease that burnout. It’s a multifaceted approach,” McPeek said. “When I was going through my severe period of anxiety, I felt very isolated and alone — like I wasn’t really supposed to be in the profession and couldn’t handle it. What’s amazing about this is realizing I wasn’t alone and will not be alone in this. There’s actually this community of nurses who have gone through very similar things, and now together, we get to address it and make positive change so that the future of nursing doesn’t necessarily have to go through this severe burnout.

“Together, we can really change the trajectory of the nursing profession. It’s such an incredible and empowering feeling.”

App on the way

As Operation Happy Nurse grows, McPeek announced a benefit concert in May and a fundraising gala in July. The money raised will fund continued work on an Operation Happy Nurse app. While the Operation Happy Nurse website will remain as an online hub, the app will be a direct anchor to the website’s features — tips on mental health improvement in the form of yoga, fitness, nutrition, weekly recipes, podcasts, playlists, a “Theraspace” blog written by a clinical social worker dedicated to helping nurses develop their self-care skills and more. Topics include managing and coping with panic attacks, how to find an in-person therapist, and setting boundaries between work and personal lives. The format will be designed like a social media channel.

McPeek said after speaking with Purdue students, many have joined the Operation Happy Nurse team in a variety of settings, including the podcast, The Happy Nurse Program, blog posting, and health and wellness video planning.

“I’ve been able to spread the word about what nurses do, which is really great because a lot of the times unless you’ve been in the hospital or have a close family member in the hospital, you don’t necessarily know or feel the effects of the nursing profession,” she explained. “Getting to talk about that honestly has been such an honor. The biggest effect from it really is the community that I’ve been able to get from this and to learn from so many incredible people.”