Permission to be Vulnerable
Even before COVID-19 brought the mental health struggles of nurses and clinicians to the spotlight, Charlene Platon, MS, RN, FNP-BC, was paying attention. Throughout her personal life, career and education, Charlene noticed how many of her colleagues, friends and family members were struggling in silence with mental health issues and didn’t want to seek help or treatment. Charlene, herself, has dealt with depression and anxiety during her entire career in healthcare. Up until recently, she recalled, she never shared her struggles with her managers or colleagues, as she felt that there was still a great deal of misunderstanding and stigma surrounding mental health.
“Even though I come from a family of nurses and nursing has been a part of my life forever, it was hard for me to succeed in nursing at first,” said Charlene. “I had a lot of dark moments when I wasn’t sure if I would make it as a nurse, or in general.”
Charlene wanted to give herself, and the nurses beside whom she worked, permission to be vulnerable. So, Fifth Window was born. She was inspired to create Fifth Window along with her partners, Jillian Littlefield, RN, Kathryn Shaffer, RN, and Michael Horn, who Charlene met at a 2020 Johnson & Johnson NurseHack4Health event. The mission of Fifth Window is to provide well-being resources for nurses, designed by nurses. Charlene said that she hopes the app can be used as a resource by nurses and nursing students, who, like her, might be struggling with mental health issues and burnout. The Fifth Window app launched on Feb. 8 and is already being utilized by hundreds of nurses across the country.
“If we're able to help support a nurse when they're in need or make them feel supported, loved and in a safe space, then we will have been successful,” said Charlene. “Fifth Window is the kind of app that I really, really wish I had had when I was a nursing student.”
Throughout her early years as a nurse, Charlene recalled that personal well-being was never discussed—not in nursing school, not in graduate school and not in any of her trainings. Though Charlene had strong mentors and faculty who helped her grow professionally, she said that none were trained to help her work through the issues she was facing. Charlene proactively sought counseling and other therapies to help her heal, but described the process as confusing, onerous and time-consuming. For Charlene, the key value of Fifth Window is that it pulls all these disparate counseling, meditation and other self-care resources into one place. This saves nurses precious time and connects them to services that are tailored to their unique needs.
After becoming a manager, Charlene vowed to create a safe space for her direct reports. This safe space, she said, is critical to keeping nurses safe, healthy and at the bedside. The Fifth Window app mirrors the safe space that Charlene has created in her own professional life, connecting nurses with a community of peers who may have similar experiences, struggles or needs. Charlene credits her current health system, Stanford Health Care, for providing such a healthy environment for nurses and clinicians to flourish. However, she acknowledged that, when it comes to mental health and well-being, there is a systemic, cultural problem facing healthcare.
“In addition to self-care, I think we need to emphasize self-compassion, which is something that we aim to do at Fifth Window,” said Charlene. “How can we help nurses learn that what they are dealing with is not their fault?”
After meeting her fellow Fifth Window founders at NurseHack4Health, Charlene knew they had the potential to solve a significant problem facing nurses. She also knew that the project had to continue after the weekend was over. The group won first place in the self-care and resiliency category at the hackathon, which opened the door for them to grow Fifth Window from a seed of an idea to a full-fledged company.
“Throughout my entire career, I had always innovated in some way. Nurses are so good at identifying problems and solving them in resourceful and creative ways,” said Charlene. “My journey has taught me that you can make a big impact by solving problems and innovating, by tapping into your personal experience.”
Prior to her success at NurseHack4Health, Charlene was accepted as a J&J Nurse Innovation Fellow. The Fellowship, Charlene reflected, not only provided her with resources, mentors and opportunities for networking, but also with friendships that she believes will last a lifetime. The Fellowship challenged what Charlene believed a nurse could do. In her cohort, she met nurses who were CEOs, product developers, academics and frontline clinicians. What brought them together, Charlene reflected, was the pursuit of healthcare innovation.
“Because of the elevation of nursing innovation, people are now saying, ‘wow these are nurses, this is what they do, they don't just clean poop every day,’” joked Charlene. “Nurses are smart, innovative and creative. Innovation empowers nurses to take seats at the table or bring our own seat.”
In the future, Charlene hopes that Fifth Window can partner with nursing schools and training programs to ensure nursing students —many of whom may be struggling just as Charlene had—have the resources they need to be the best nurses and people that they can be. Charlene also sees Fifth Window as a beneficial app for all healthcare providers and hopes to expand their outreach to clinicians and other hospital professionals as well.
“Ultimately, our goal is to transform healthcare workplace culture to where mental wellness and self-care is a clear priority,” said Charlene. “It’s important to have tools and resources that are developed and designed by nurses so that we can make this change at the system-level.”