Being a mental health nurse and a mental health patient at the same time can sometimes be a little confusing.
I tend to keep my mental health and my professional life separate in some ways – I am open about my experiences and feel able to tell my colleagues if things are difficult, but equally I am not personally a fan of self disclosure in any patient-professional interactions and would not share my own difficulties with either a patient or their family. That’s just my preference. Equally I do not put it on job applications. This isn’t because I don’t feel that my lived experience isn’t relevant – very much the opposite actually – but I like to gain my academic and professional achievements based on my skills and merits in those fields and not based on my own mental health history.
I am incredibly proud to work for the NHS, and it was a battle for me to get to this position as I failed some of my GCSE’s whilst I was an inpatient and then had to extend my access course by a year due to taking time out to receive treatment for anorexia in the middle. My education has been stalled by several years and I was 24 by the time I got to university. It is worth noting however that for a nursing degree, and particularly mental health nursing, this is still below the average age of enrolled students, but for me it was much later than I’d planned on going. With that said, in hindsight I think it was the perfect time for me to go. I’d managed to stabilise my mental health by that point, had a number of years’ experience under my belt as a support worker and was in a place where I was mature enough to cope with the pressures of the course.
I, and my colleagues, work incredibly hard in what is very often an underpaid, understaffed and overworked system. This is the perfect recipe for mistakes to happen, and if a nurse tells you they’ve never made a mistake they’re lying. We’ve all made them.
This is where, however, I find it very difficult to also be a patient. I know that we are stressed. I know that we are stretched to our absolute limits. I know that nobody is perfect. Despite me knowing all of this first hand, it is still incredibly difficult to be on the wrong side of those oversights and mistakes. And unfortunately, the last few years that I have been under mental health services on and off, I have been subject to a lot of them. My notes have been lost before being written up, and nobody is 100% sure what happened to them. My prescriptions have disappeared in transit between services. My referrals have gone missing. To me, these are very dangerous but completely avoidable errors. I am somebody who is, most of the time, well enough to be assertive about my care needs and to chase services when I need them. Many other vulnerable people will not find themselves in my position and it scares me that this is happening to those people too but they are flying under the radar. These are all things where, in the best case scenario you have somebody like me chasing it up, and in the worst cases scenario, people die.
I don’t like to complain because I feel a sense of camaraderie with my mental health colleagues, and I feel how stressed they are. The care I have received face to face has generally been overwhelmingly positive, with the odd exception here and there. I know that the nurses who have looked after me do care and want to do a good job, and that there are many, many barriers to doing that sometimes. But regardless of all of these barriers, it still just isn’t good enough. It isn’t
I love the NHS and I am proud of it. But something, somewhere, has to change.