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Bid to rid mental health nursing of stigma from Nurse Ratched

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A mental health nurse has told how outdated and dark portrayals of the speciality, such as in film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, still hang over the profession and must be debunked.

Ed Freshwater said mental health nursing was all too often depicted as “dangerous” and “scary” and that there was a lack of understanding of the role.

“We don’t know have a Charlie Fairhead or a Nurse Jackie kind of character in mental health”

Ed Freshwater

He explained how, to many people, the mental health nurse archetype was still the evil Nurse Ratched from the 1975 film.

“We don’t know have a Charlie Fairhead or a Nurse Jackie kind of character in mental health, where is that profile and that understanding of it?,” Mr Freshwater told Nursing Times.

Mr Freshwater is chair of the Royal College of Nursing’s Mental Health Forum. Every year the forum carries out a consultation with its members and Mr Freshwater said a common theme in the results was the desire for more positivity around the profession.

“That’s always thrown out the idea that people don’t feel their role is understood or valued and [that there is a] pretty negative perception of mental health nursing certainly within health care,” he added. “It’s not a role that’s really understood in the general public.”

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Nurse Ratched

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched

In a bid to tackle some of these issues, the forum has organised the first ever Mental Health Nurses’ Day, which will take place on 21 February.

Events are due to be held around the UK for people to get more information about the role of mental health nurses and members from the forum will host a Twitter chat between 7-8pm.

Mr Freshwater said the three aims of the campaign was to “celebrate, describe and promote the role of mental health nursing”.

He also hopes it will encourage more people to consider a career in the speaclity. According to statistics from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the number of mental health nurses fell from 90,693 to 88,821 between 2014 and 2018.

“It’s not seen as a good career at the moment and we really need to challenge that because it is a very worthwhile, rewarding and important career for people to join in in,” he told Nursing Times.

“I hope organisations and individuals will consider ways to celebrate Mental Health Nurses’ Day2

Catherine Gamble

Mr Freshwater works in a community mother and baby mental health team in Birmingham. He explained how seeing his actions improve the mental health of a mother gave him “the most wonderful feeling”, because he knew this would also give the child a better chance in life.

“It’s really quite an overwhelming feeling of ‘wow I haven’t just helped her, but I’ve helped that child and then when they grow up they will do much better’ – it’s just wonderful, it’s a real buzz,” said Mr Freshwater.

Catherine Gamble, RCN mental health professional lead, said raising the profile of the profession at a time when mental health was a UK-wide priority “couldn’t be more timely”.

Improving mental health services is a key objective of the NHS Long Term Plan, which was released in January.

“I hope organisations and individuals will consider ways to celebrate Mental Health Nurses’ Day as, every day, mental health nurses go above and beyond,” she added. 

Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in North East Wales is already getting involved by encouraging people to share their messages of thanks to mental health nurses.

Submissions will be shared with mental health nursing staff working in community and inpatient services in Wrexham and Flintshire.

Steve Forsyth, the health board’s director of nursing for mental health and learning disabilities, said: “It takes a very special sort of person to be a mental health nurse, and the contribution they make in caring for people and their families cannot be underestimated.

“We have over 700 mental health nurses working in our hospitals and community services, and I am proud of each and every one of them for the fantastic care they provide,” added Mr Forsyth, who is himself an experienced mental health nurse.

“There are a number of ways that people can tell us when we don’t get things right, but it’s also important to celebrate the huge positive impact that our mental health nurses and healthcare assistants make for people in our community when they need it the most,” he said.

The inaugural Mental Health Nurses’ Day will serve as a pilot with the hope of it becoming an annual campaign.

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