A mental health nurse who overcame alcoholism and successfully regained his registration has called for more support for other nurses battling addiction.
Former specialist mental health unit manager Kenny Brady was struck off by the Nursing and Midwifery Council in 2012 for misconduct linked to his drinking problem.
“It wouldn’t be unusual for me to drink a bottle and a half – sometimes two – of bourbon a day by the end”
But after an emotional hearing in October he was told he could return to the profession he loved having been sober for four years and turned his life around.
Mr Brady, who lost his home, wife and livelihood because of his drinking, said he was keen to share his story with readers of Nursing Times to raise awareness of the devastating impact of alcoholism and the need for understanding and support.
Many other nurses turn to drinking in part due to the stress of the job but their problems were often not acknowledged by themselves or those with the power to help them until it was too late, he maintained.
Mr Brady explained that he started drinking heavily in his early 20s, having grown up in informal foster care, experienced homelessness and committed minor offences.
Having managed to stop drinking, he went on to forge a successful career as a drugs and alcohol worker in police stations and for the prison service.
“I went straight into a job as a community psychiatric nurse with a crisis resolution team, which was a mistake”
He said he was drawn to mental health nursing because he was keen to help others who had been through difficult experiences and, having remained sober for six years, embarked on a nursing diploma at the University of Brighton.
“I came from a socially excluded background and many other mental health nurses come from that kind of background – they find a calling for something they have been through,” said Mr Brady.
“People end up as mental health nurses because their parents are unwell or their brother is unwell – we have all got a reason to push us into it, which is what makes it a vocation and after nearly nine years off the register it is why I wanted to come back,” he said.
However, it was during the second year of his studies that he started drinking again and it became a serious problem about a year into his nursing career.
“I went straight into a job as a community psychiatric nurse with a crisis resolution team, which was a mistake,” he said. “It was a very big job, but one of the reasons I went for it is I was ambitious and thought I could do everything.”
“Alcoholism is a set of behaviours and some of the symptoms are being egotistical, bullish and grandiose,” noted Mr Brady.
He did that role for about six months and was then appointed the manager of a new private forensic mental health unit for working age adults with highly complex mental health problems.
“It makes you unhappy, it makes you angry, it makes you scared and you go to work carrying all that”
He oversaw the establishment of the specialist facility but was drinking more and more and quit his job. However, he was persuaded to return as clinical lead.
“By the time I came back as clinical lead my drinking was so severe I was just losing the plot,” he said. “I had already tried to leave once, because I recognised there was something wrong.”
While he never drank at work, or turned up drunk, he described how his addiction affected his behaviour resulting in a referral to the NMC by his employer.
“When you are an alcoholic and you are drinking it makes you short-tempered. It makes you unhappy, it makes you angry, it makes you scared and you go to work carrying all that and it is not long before you make a number of minor mistakes,” he said.
He was referred to the NMC and was subsequently struck off for issues including arguing and losing his temper with patients, swearing at work, and because he had failed to disclose to his employer that he had had alcohol problems in the past.
He lost his job, split up with his wife and his parents both died within the space of a year – and the drinking escalated. As a long-serving member of the Territorial Army, he was also facing the prospect of possible deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq.
“It wouldn’t be unusual for me to drink a bottle and a half – sometimes two – of bourbon a day by the end. I had to move away from Jack Daniels and find a cheaper version from Aldi,” said Mr Brady.
“Eventually I reached a kind of jumping off point. Do I do something about this or do I just check out? My life simply could not go on the way it was,” he told Nursing Times.
“At the end, one panel member actually got up and came across the room to shake my hand,”
He said: “Every alcoholic at some point considers taking their own life. For the last two years of my drinking I was drinking against my will – I didn’t want to do it anymore but I couldn’t stop doing it.”
Mr Brady eventually managed to stop drinking with the help of a well-known global support programme and now helps other alcoholics through the same steps to recovery.
He qualified as an electrician and then became a bus driver alongside doing ongoing charity work, including running two marathons in aid of Spiral Sussex, which works with disabled children.
He started thinking about returning to nursing. “I found I gravitated towards doing community-minded stuff anyway and suddenly I realised I am not the man I used to be,” he said.
“The person who got struck off is not here anymore so one day I thought I’ll give it a go and see what happens,” said Mr Brady.
He was initially due to make his case for re-instatement to the NMC in August. However, when he arrived at the hearing realised he was not adequately prepared so decided to postpone.
He sought support from NMCWatch, which campaigns for improvements to fitness to practise procedures as well as helping individual registrants referred to the NMC.
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At a second hearing on October 11 was told he could return to the nursing register. Mr Brady said the hearing was very different to the last time he appeared before the NMC with panel members congratulating him on his honesty and insight.
“At the end, one panel member actually got up and came across the room to shake my hand,” he said. “The panel secretary told me he had never heard anything like it and it was inspirational and the NMC’s legal assessor approached me in the street outside to congratulate me.”
The panel’s judgement was full of praise for Mr Brady and said it was clear he had learned from his mistakes and was “passionate about helping others”.
“It is clear that you have reflected on your actions and behaviour and now have the courage to come before a panel at your professional regulator to apologise and accept full responsibility,” stated the judgement.
In particular, the regulator’s panel said it was struck by his “honest and realistic understanding” of his condition and the need for “constant vigilance and work”.
It concluded he could return to the register, having successfully completed a return to practise course.
Mr Brady told Nursing Times that he had already spoken to Brighton University and hopes to enrol on a course starting in January.
“I may well go back into a registered nursing role but if I do it will be a basic role,” he said. “I would not go straight in at band 6 and try and fly again – that’s not me anymore.
“I would go into a normal nursing roles and learn the basics which is really what I should have done the first time,” he added.
He said his story showed it was possible to beat addiction with the right support and urged nurses and others currently struggling to seek help.
“If you think you have some kind of problem with alcohol or the way you are behaving there is help out there that you can get before you get into trouble at work,” he said.
However, he said employers, regulators and others could do more to support healthcare professionals with alcohol problems before it got to the point of an NMC referral.
“I’m alive. I’m really healthy and everything is back on track. Some people don’t get that do they”
He highlighted that the fear of referral often made matters worse. “Nurses get very stressed,” he said. “The fear of someone saying I am going to refer you, I am going to take your career away compounds the problem and makes people drink even more.”
Meanwhile, he suggested that nurses and doctors were often reluctant to seek help or admit they had a problem. He said employers could make more effort to tap into and publicise support for addicts available in the voluntary sector.
“HR and occupational health departments could quite easily get in touch with these organisations who send people to talk to you for free,” he said.
He also called for greater understanding of alcoholism as an illness and an underlying low-level personality disorder that affects people even when sober,” said Mr Brady.
“The World Health Organization recognises alcoholism as a disease, but it is not something like diabetes that elicits sympathy – it alienates you,” he said.
“Employers and others need to recognise the person is ill and understand that people who don’t have an off button with regards to drink – or anything else- are different to people who just drink heavily,” he said. “There is a condition called alcoholism that needs to be respected.”
As for the future, he is feeling positive and looking forward to getting his registration back.
“I’m alive. I’m really healthy and everything is back on track. Some people don’t get that do they,” he added.