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Nurse Strives for Miss Illinois Title, Seeks End to Mental Health Stigma


As she prepares to compete for the title of Miss Illinois in early June, Darlene Steinkamp, a registered nurse in one of Springfield Memorial Hospital’s intensive care units, wants you to know it’s OK not to be OK.

Steinkamp knows what she’s talking about. She has faced more than her share of pressure and anguish in her 25 years – a broken home, a high school breakdown, overwhelming on-the-job stress during the pandemic. When she was 17 years old, she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

Today, she’s using her platform to speak out about the dangers of mental health stigma, which can keep people from seeking help when they experience a mental health crisis. Steinkamp has benefited from therapy, and she wants others to know it’s all right to seek help.

“I want to help people understand that the struggles they face are OK to feel,” Steinkamp said. “It does not make you less of a person to feel. It makes you human.”

Steinkamp, who lives in Chatham, is among more than two dozen women who will seek to be crowned Miss Illinois from June 8-11 at the Marion Cultural and Civic Center in southern Illinois. She was named Miss Capital City last October.

Serving as a nurse “has been heartbreaking and grueling, but I learned I can do my job and do it well,” she said.

Steinkamp is a charge nurse in the trauma and burn intensive care unit, part of the nonprofit hospital’s Memorial Burn Care. She began her career in an intermediate care unit at the hospital in 2019, starting just ahead of the global COVID-19 pandemic that pushed many frontline health care workers to the brink. Steinkamp was among those who struggled with the intense emotions surrounding the suffering and loss she witnessed on her unit.

“I fought a battle for so long in silence,” said Steinkamp, who struggled to get out of bed and experienced unusual irritability and bouts of crying during the height of the pandemic. “I thought admitting that I was struggling mentally would make people look at me like I was weak and couldn't handle tough situations. But the opposite is true. My battle with mental illness makes me who I am. It makes me an empathetic nurse.”

Steinkamp was persuaded by her nurse manager to talk openly about the mental and emotional struggles she was experiencing. “He told me ‘It’s OK not to be OK,’ and that really clicked in my head,” she said.

“Nursing is a tough job,” said Tadd Schroeder, Steinkamp’s supervisor and nurse manager of the intensive care unit for trauma and burn patients at Springfield Memorial Hospital, “yet Darlene is very level-headed and helps keep an even keel on our unit.”

Steinkamp wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she entered college, but she quickly discovered nursing was her passion.

“I knew I liked helping people,” she said. “During nursing school, I fell in love with being an advocate for others. Within my first semester of nursing school, I knew I had chosen the right career.”