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Mental health nursing 'bruised' by stigma, says nurse director

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Tackling “stigma and prejudice” around mental health is key to addressing nurse recruitment challenges in this field, a leader at a top NHS trust has said.

As previously reported, mental health nursing is under increasing pressure due to issues with recruitment and retention, with some trusts forced to shut beds due to understaffing.

“It is a wonderful and challenging job but has been bruised by the same stigma as those who suffer from mental illness”

Andy Cruickshank

While the entire profession is burdened by the same problems, evidence suggests mental health and learning disability nursing are some of the areas most seriously hit by the national nurse shortage.

The recent drop in mature students entering nursing courses in England has also escalated concerns, because mental health careers have traditionally attracted people with significant life experience.

While acknowledging the issue of funding for training and services, Andy Cruickshank, director of nursing for mental health at East London NHS Foundation Trust, said work also needed to be done to improve the perception of mental health nursing if vacancies are to be filled.

“It is a wonderful and challenging job but has been bruised by the same stigma as those who suffer from mental illness,” he said. “We need to change this perception and think about how we attract young adults into this work and how we can attract those with lived experience of mental health services to help.”

Mr Cruickshank said: “There are many routes into this work but we have to speak plainly about the stigma and prejudice that still exists and challenge this in every way we can.

“These same factors can contribute to the tragedy of suicide and while this headline is most welcome there is much more to do,” he added.

“Giving people a bit of time – often a few minutes is all that’s needed – can be a helpful start”

Andy Cruickshank

Mr Cruickshank was speaking to Nursing Times as new figures revealed suicide rates have fallen to some of the lowest on record.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics showed there were 5,821 suicides registered in the UK in 2017, representing a rate of 10.1 deaths per 100,000 people. This annual rate was second lowest since the ONS accounts began in 1981.

The number of men taking their own life has reached an all-time low, but the data shows men are still three times more likely than women to die by suicide.

Mr Cruickshank said nurses played a “really important” role in helping people address their mental health concerns and preventing suicide.

He said: “As nurses, we generally see people at their most vulnerable and so paying attention to how they are feeling, asking about this and looking at their circumstances, ­whether they are feeling lonely or isolated and so on, can really help to begin a process of connection and hope for people.

Andy Cruickshank

Andy Cruickshank

Andy Cruickshank

”Giving people a bit of time – often a few minutes is all that’s needed – can be a helpful start,” said Mr Cruickshank.

When asked if there were fears the shortages could halt progress on suicide rates, he said: “It is a challenging time but if communities can engage in conversations about mental health then I think this is likely to stimulate interest in working in the field.”

Questioned on what was driving the drop in suicides, he pointed to improvements in access to psychological and emotional support, and greater awareness of mental health helped by the media and high-profile ambassadors.

Mr Cruickshank said staff at his trust, which is rated “outstanding” by the Care Quality Commission, adopted an approach of “connection and conversation” when caring for vulnerable patients.

“Good team work, openness and willingness to learn from our service users are key elements for safety,” he said.

“We may be rated ‘outstanding’ but we have to keep improving – it is about keeping alongside; in-step with the needs of those we care for,” he added. 

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