'Mental health problems can happen to anybody, even student nurses'
I’m a second year mental health nursing student, but in a previous career, I was an actor.
Four years ago I got the lead part in a touring production of a popular West End musical. Everything was fine in the beginning. The music rehearsals went well but I was having some trouble learning the lines. Little things people said such as “This is a massive part” or “the whole show relies on you”, started to make me think if I would be able to do the job.
When the full rehearsals started, things got worse. I didn’t feel like I was getting anything right, I felt like I was singing out of tune and there were still some songs that I hadn’t learned to play. I began to lose my appetite and I wasn’t sleeping. I would wake up at three or four in the morning and the thoughts would begin immediately and I would lie awake and worry. One day I found myself sitting on the train on the way to London wondering how painful it would be to break my own arm so that I wouldn’t have to carry on with the show.
Still only in the first week of rehearsals I woke up early one morning and the thought of getting on the train to go to rehearsals frightened me more than anything. I simply could not go. The next day, with the help of my wife I went up to London to tell the production company that I could no longer continue.
I felt utterly worthless. I didn’t want to do anything or go out of the house. I just lay on the sofa and cried or paced the floor. I couldn’t find any pleasure even in things that I usually enjoyed. This was my first ever run in with anxiety and it changed my life.
when I started my nursing degree, I ate my lunch in my car in the car park because I was anxious about trying to make conversation with strangers
It took me time to get back to some semblance of normality. Some months after the crisis point, and with a lot of support from my family, I had improved enough to do one last play with a local theatre company that I had worked with before. I then said farewell to professional acting.
There are still some ways in which anxiety affects me. For instance when I started my nursing degree, I ate my lunch in my car in the car park because I was anxious about trying to make conversation with strangers. While in the first year, I almost convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough to be there and didn’t deserve a place on the course.
New situations are hard for me. The week before I begin a new placement, I get anxiety symptoms.
So far I have told every mentor in my practice placements that I have trouble with anxiety and, luckily, they have been very understanding. New situations are hard for me. The week before I begin a new placement, I get anxiety symptoms. The “what if-ing?” starts, I start losing sleep and I can’t eat. This then carries through into the first week at placement when I have to make a real effort to overcome my feelings and get to know everyone and the placement area.
The worst this has been was before my first ward placement. I had done two Community Mental Health Recovery Service placements and knew what to expect and had become comfortable in that setting. An acute MH ward was somewhere I had never worked and I was anxious about what I would have to do and what would be the hours I was expected to work.
I admitted that I was in a bit of a state and my mentor said “I know but we’re MH. We can accommodate and don’t worry.”
I eventually managed to talk to my mentor three days into the placement and almost cried when we did negotiate a shift pattern which suited me although it didn’t necessarily fit in with the norm for that practice area. I admitted that I was in a bit of a state and my mentor said “I know but we’re MH. We can accommodate and don’t worry.” These words meant such a lot. It strengthened me and made me feel supported. The difficult week ended and I went on to have a fantastic placement in which I felt that I learned a lot and did a lot of good work with the patients on the ward.
So why do I feel the need to write an item about my experience of anxiety? Recently we did a workshop and as an icebreaking task, we had to go around the room with a piece of paper and have statements signed by people that they applied to. One of the statements was “I am often anxious.” I signed this for many people. After the exercise, one of my colleagues remarked on how ridiculous it was that statements that had any emotional link were hard to get signed off. Why should we worry about admitting these things? After all we deal with people in emotional crisis and ask them deep, personal questions, so why should we feel uncomfortable discussing our own feelings?
I think that even though we are meant to be erasing the stigma of MH, we ourselves often feel unable to admit to having any problems
I wonder why I have always found it a hard decision to make when thinking about telling my mentors about my anxiety. Given the one in four statistic (World Health Organisation 2001) there’s a chance that they might have had a MH problem themselves and furthermore, they are MH professionals. Why should it be a problem? In my worried state, I often believe that they might think I’ll be a useless student if I am anxious. Rationally I understand that they probably won’t think this, but anxiety isn’t rational.
I think that even though we are meant to be erasing the stigma of MH, we ourselves often feel unable to admit to having any problems. There is this view that we are meant to be strong and mentally robust in order to help our clients and so feel uneasy about confessing our weaknesses.
I think this should change. I am not advocating everyone airing their own problems in lectures. What I would like to see is a greater awareness that some of us may have had some difficulties and that it’s okay to admit it. As we progress through our careers and are exposed to the higher pressures of the working environment, recognising the signs of anxiety and depression in ourselves and being able to talk about it will be essential in being able to continue in our work. We must be aware that MH problems can happen to anybody.
Dominic Worsfold is a second year mental health nursing student.