Musings of a mental health nurse

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Leigh has been a mental health nurse since 2007.  She has worked in inpatient and community settings, in both rural and metropolitan mental health services. Currently she works in a busy metropolitan inpatient service.

Why would anyone choose to be a mental health nurse?! It’s a question my colleagues and I face almost daily, along with “oh, so you’re not a real nurse, then?” The second is always the easier one to answer.  Yes, in fact I am a “real nurse”. I am a registered nurse who has chosen to work in a very demanding, specialist nursing field.

So, why? This question is a bit more difficult to answer, largely because some days I really wonder myself why I have chosen this field of nursing.

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It started when I was studying for my nursing degree. During my various placements I kept on finding, to my dismay, that I didn’t really like many of the fields of nursing I encountered. They were all so task oriented and lacking in the patient care and contact I had enjoyed while working as an enrolled nurse in aged care.

Then I did my mental health placement and knew I had found my niche. Lots of meaningful contact with patients and a genuine team approach to care.

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Mental health nursing provides many challenges. Many of our patients do not accept that they are unwell; the last place they want to be is in a hospital ward. As a result we look after a large number of people who have been legally compelled to be in hospital and undergo treatment. Building rapport with these people requires a great deal of empathy and excellent communication skills. On a daily basis we are required to make decisions that impinge on a person’s right to choose for themselves – we have to find a way to be okay with what is, to most of us, a fundamental ethical dilemma. During the course of a shift we can realistically expect to be yelled at, ignored, treated like a maid, cried on, hugged and, on occasion, thanked. As well as managing a myriad of psychiatric and/or behavioural symptoms, we also have to recognise, monitor and treat physical illnesses. See? We are real nurses!!

What do I love about mental health nursing? I work on an acute inpatient unit. I love the unpredictability of it, the immediacy of it. I love watching my patients turn back into the people their friends and families tell us they are. I love the interaction; using communication skills, and empathy. I love talking to people.

Of course there are downsides. Often we are at risk of being assaulted, but we are trained to deal with difficult situations. We are regularly yelled at and abused.

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I love mental health nursing, but it’s getting to be an increasingly difficult area to work in, mostly due to the rampant use of ice. This is changing our patient demographic and also changing the way we work. It has also had the unfortunate effect of making our work more dangerous. Personally, I have been assaulted and used as a shield by an ice-affected patient who wanted to be let out of the unit. While I suffered only very minor physical injuries, the injury to my psyche was more substantial. Still, I have recovered well and am back doing the job I love.

Mostly though, the abuse is not personal. Frustration often brings out the worst in people. There are way more good days than bad ones.

Would I recommend mental health nursing to others? We get lots of students and I say to them, “You have to really want to do it. If you feel really drawn to it, go for it.” You can usually tell the ones who get the bug.

Mental health nursing. It gets into your blood, it crawls under your skin.  It can rip you apart emotionally one day, then give you unspeakable joy the next. In a nutshell, I love it.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks Leigh for your story. I am too a mental health nurse and daily I get asked why mental health? It is amazing how many people do not accept mental health nursing as “real nursing”. I have worked in a adult mental health inpatient unit for 25 years now and I still enjoy it. I agree with you that you really have to want to do it, you need to be passionate about it as this is what drives you through the not so nice days.

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