“If we make a mistake people die, and that was what drove me to get help,” says critical care nurse Ged Swinton.
That was how Mr Swinton described the moment he realised that the depression and anxiety that had been bubbling below the surface for years, but that he pushed aside out of fear of letting down his colleagues and patients, had escalated to a level he could no longer ignore.
“I thought my decision making here could have some catastrophic results that are irreversible”
A resuscitation officer in a cardiac arrest team at University Hospital Southampton NHS Foundation Trust, Mr Swinton said his life had become consumed by his job – taking up his every waking thought and even spilling over into his sleep.
Mr Swinton, whose exclusive interview with Nursing Times coincides with World Mental Health Day today, said: “There is pressure on nurses to keep doing, even when they are not at work.
“Even if there is no overt pressure there is a covert pressure within one’s self because you are second guessing the decisions you made during the day – did I do this, have I done that right? And that level of anxiety turns into a crescendo,” he said. “It becomes very intrusive even in your off time.
He said: “There are times I recall, and I know others have, where you have dreamt you have worked a night shift when you have slept, and actually you wake up feeling like you have worked that night shift so you are just knackered. You don’t switch off.
“I’ve had experience of waking up at 2am thinking my crash bleep had gone off and hearing it and getting up to go out the bedroom when actually I was home and not carrying a crash bleep,” he said. “You start getting auditory stimulus that’s not really there.
“It’s not just a crash bleep but things like ventilator alarms, monitor alarms, call bells – that’s a good indication to me that you are really wired into the system,” he told Nursing Times.
“We need more nurses, we need to be properly compensated and recognised for the value of the work that we do”
Along with workplace pressures, Mr Swinton said he was also experiencing challenges in his personal life that were contributing to a decline in his mental health.
When his condition deteriorated to the point that he did not trust the decisions he was making at work or even at home, Mr Swinton said he knew he needed to seek help.
Mr Swinton, who is father to Kayleigh, 23, and Ashleigh, 15, and husband to Gaynor, went to see his GP and was told he needed time off work. He has been on sick leave for five months.
“There is still a stigma and a pressure on nurses to come into work because the patients will suffer, the team will suffer, and all it does is it grinds you down,” said Mr Swinton, who is chair of the Royal College of Nursing’s Southampton and Isle of Wight branch.
He said: “There is always a shortage of something or other, and rather than going actually early on in the process: ‘I am not well I need to take time’, you put yourself second all the time, so it gets to a crisis point where you are crushed and it takes you, as it’s taken me, nearly six months to get back.
“Now I am well, I can see it had probably been rumbling along for a number of years to be honest, but I just kept ignoring it and putting it to the back of my mind because I had been busy working, looking after patients, looking after families,” he said.
“It was only when it got to crisis point where I was in a position where I thought my decision making here could have some catastrophic results that are irreversible,” he said. ”If we make a mistake people die, and that was what drove me to get help.”
The 47-year-old, who lives in Southampton, was put on antidepressants and went through a “significant” lifestyle change, allowing himself time to relax, be with his family, go the gym and have restful sleep. He cleared his thoughts of all things nursing including his job and his work with the RCN.
“I just basically walked away from it and this sounds a bit tripe, but I rediscovered myself,” said Mr Swinton. “I found out who I was again and not the person I had become. I had become defensive, I had become sarcastic, aggressive, all that negative stuff that wasn’t who I was which was why I wasn’t happy.”
Mr Swinton, a registered general nurse who qualified in 2003, is due to return to work in two weeks’ time and said he felt ready and excited to get back to helping patients.
He said his employer had been “extremely supportive” throughout his illness and encouraged him to take all the time he needed to get better.
Mr Swinton also praised the care from his GP and said his wife had been key in his recovery. However, Mr Swinton recognised that not all nurses were able to access the same level of support.
At the end of last week, NHS boss Simon Stevens announced that a new mental health support scheme was being launched for all NHS doctors in England.
A post about the initiative on Twitter by health secretary Matt Hancock attracted questions about why it was only targeting doctors and no other NHS staff groups, as previously reported by Nursing Times.
Mr Swinton was one of those who confronted Mr Hancock on the social media site, writing: “As a nurse who has been very ill with mental health issues how about a support scheme including all health professionals, maybe even resourcing our work adequately so we don’t collapse under the weight of being unable to deliver excellent care to all.”
Speaking to Nursing Times, Mr Swinton said he was glad Mr Hancock was recognising that the mental health of NHS staff was an issue, but that help should be there for all.
“You put yourself second all the time so it gets to a crisis point where you are crushed”
Working in nursing for nearly 30 years, Mr Swinton said pressures on nurses today were “worse than ever” due to “lack of resource and increased activity”.
He said nurses no longer had time to sit down with colleagues for vital “peer support” due to swelling workloads.
There needs to be a “cultural change” for nurses, which tackles stigma stopping them from seeking help and supports them the recognise when cracks are forming in their own health, Mr Swinton said.
He concluded: “I just think nursing is getting harder. We need more nurses, we need to be properly compensated and recognised for the value of the work that we do and nurses need to be able to take the time to look at their own health and to access that support.”
NHS England has promised to introduce new mental health support for all staff groups in its upcoming 10-year plan.
Mr Swinton said he wanted to speak out about his experiences with mental illness because he had praised others in the past for fighting the stigma and telling their stories, and he felt it was the right time to add his voice to the movement.