Nick Nissen, M.D. ’16 has seen too many people characterize mental health struggles as a personal failure or weakness. He first noticed it in middle school, when a friend dealt with depression. He continued to observe this attitude as he learned more about mental health during his pre-health studies at Notre Dame and medical school at Brown University.
“My friend’s depression was the most mysterious thing to me, and brought about these questions about the cause of mental illness,” Nissen says. “In medical school, I came to understand that there is a biological component to mental illness, and my friend was suffering due to something he did not have complete control over. He wasn’t being lazy, or dramatic. And I feel like that is the case for millions of Americans.”
So today, he aims to share that understanding through his work as a physician, medical writer, mental health advocate, and speaker.
Nissen is halfway through a four-year residency training program in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He sees patients that are hospitalized with conditions like addictions, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, those coming to the emergency department in a mental health crisis, as well as his own therapy patients. He also hosts a podcast called Brain Health with Dr. Nissen, is a medical correspondent for ABC News, and has written a children’s book that teaches emotional intelligence and empathy.
After graduating from Notre Dame with a bachelor of arts in Spanish and pre-health studies, Nissen entered medical school at Brown with plans to go into craniofacial plastic surgery. But a few moving interactions with patients battling opioid addiction changed that and led him to psychiatry.
“At Brown, I got to be involved in facial trauma plastic surgery cases, and a large percentage of them were people with addictions that had injured themselves while intoxicated. And it was in interacting with those people that I realized I really loved working with addictions,” Nissen says. “And I really loved that more than being in an operating room.”
In the long term, Nissen is interested in expanding access to high-quality mental health care for people dealing with depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders as a digital health entrepreneur.
“More people are recognizing that there’s a strong biological component to mental illnesses and that there are very strong psychological and social components, as well. It is not the fault of the person with the illness,” Nissen says. “It’s very exciting to me to think about ways that you could provide people with in-depth workups, evaluations and diagnosis, a very thorough treatment plan that includes therapy and medications, and even things like nutritional consultations, sleep consultations, [and] exercise or fitness consultations since those three things are underutilized evidence-based interventions for good mental health.”
In the meantime, Nissen continues to reach an audience beyond his patients as a medical writer and speaker. On his podcast, he interviews experts who study depression and anxiety, as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Nissen’s first foray into podcasting was back in medical school.
“I've always been a multitasker, and in a significant way that started in medical school when I had been listening to podcasts about medical education and studying tips and things like that. I reached out to a doctor who had started podcasting and we co-founded a medical education podcasting company called InsideTheBoards,” he says. “It has grown to be the largest medical education podcasting network in the world with tens of millions of downloads by medical trainees.”
Nissen also shares educational posts on his Tiktok and Instagram accounts, @Dr.Nissen, and offers his expertise as a medical correspondent for ABC News.
He reviews stories and news segments that appear on programs like Good Morning America (GMA) and World News Tonight, checking for medical accuracy. Nissen worked for ABC full time as an elective rotation during his first year of residency and continues to work remotely as a contributing journalist from his home in Boston. In addition to writing articles and creating Instagram and TikTok content for ABC News, he has made several television appearances, including one on GMA in December 2020, sharing ways to combat insomnia during the pandemic.
The constant throughout all of Nissen’s work is an emphasis on empathy, which fittingly is part of the title of his children’s book, Emily Empathy.
“Empathy is critically important and yet is terribly misunderstood. Empathy is not to encourage somebody and say, ‘There, there, everything’s going to be alright,’” he says. “Rather, it is the practice of careful observation and questioning to enter another person’s mind, attempting to fully understand what they’re thinking and feeling. The book was created in my learning in therapy about empathy and recognizing how it’s such a core human skill, that I wish it was taught more to everyone, especially kids.”
The rhyming story in Emily Empathy aims to teach children empathy and develop their emotional intelligence by noticing hints in the behaviors and words of others, to learn what they are thinking and feeling.
Nissen says he feels a responsibility to use his knowledge and medical training to help others, which is rooted in his family upbringing in Crystal Lake, Illinois, his Catholic faith, and his time at Notre Dame. As a student, he volunteered at a medical clinic in Peru through the Center for Social Concerns, studied abroad in Mexico, did medical research in Spain and the Dominican Republic, served as an RA, and was the president of Operation Smile, a student club that raises funds and awareness for cleft lip and cleft palate repair surgeries.
“There’s such a strong sense of professional success aligned with Catholic responsibility and social justice at Notre Dame, and that infiltrates pre-medical studies, it infiltrates the Center for Social Concerns, and as a result, it infiltrated my own trajectory and life vision,” says Nissen, who also met his wife, Viviana Dewey ’16, at Notre Dame. “That idea of aligning my career with Catholic responsibility and social justice aligned very well with how I was raised and continues to be how I look at my life. I’m forever grateful for Notre Dame.”