Mental health nursing is a fascinating and rewarding career path, explains nurse manager Shannon Graham
When I told my family and friends that I wanted to be a mental health nurse, I was surprised to suddenly be told how many people in my life had or were currently being treated for mental ill health.
But that reflects real life – mental illness is commom but people still feel uncomfortable talking about it.
I’m really proud to be able to make a difference to people with severe mental illnesses. I work as a nurse manager of two women’s wards at St Andrew’s Healthcare, a leading charity caring for individuals with complex mental health needs.
To me, mental health offers by far the most interesting and challenging career for a nurse. In physical healthcare there’s a set way to treat each condition: if a patient has a broken leg, you know to set the bone and put it in plaster.
In our sector, several patients might have the same diagnosis but the way you work with them is totally different. You have to work with the individual – get to know them, what they like and how best to help them.
Working with female patients is, I think, the most interesting and rewarding area of our work.
”It’s fascinating to help untangle the web of issues behind a patient’s condition”
There are so many external forces that play a role in female mental health and personality and emotion can play a much bigger part than with men. It’s fascinating to help untangle the web of issues behind a patient’s condition to help them towards recovery.
A vital step in supporting a female patient is often getting them to realise that they’re safe. Often new patients will display extreme behaviour to test how you respond. Sometimes the patient is even actively trying to get you to hurt them because that’s what they have come to expect from others.
But patience, communication and respect eventually help the person to realise they are safe and they can trust you. It’s so rewarding when you reach this stage.
”Patience, communication and respect eventually help the person to realise they are safe and they can trust you”
What’s so inspiring about this job is playing a part in people’s recovery and feeling a personal responsibility for it. Your personality and your communication style are of huge importance. You might be the only person on a ward that can gain the trust of a particular patient which makes you an essential part of their recovery.
There’s nothing better than the feeling when a patient is well enough to leave us. I imagine it’s how a proud parent might feel when their child goes off to live independently!
Often I have come across patients that people think will never leave mental healthcare – and often we’ve been proved wrong. It’s about unlocking the desire to get better inside each one of them.
Patients often support and help us too. As a younger nurse, patients gave me key life skills – pointing out the importance of being careful with money for example. Patients are a great source of insight into the different personalities on the ward - staff and residents alike.
”The whole environment is designed to keep you safe and I’ve never had any major incidents”
It’s not always fun and friendly of course. People ask me how I feel about the risks of this role but the whole environment is designed to keep you safe and I’ve never had any major incidents. I certainly feel safer here than I would working in A&E on a Friday night.
I would urge any nurse to seriously consider entering mental healthcare. Career progression is fast and there are lots of opportunities. I became nurse manager within four years of qualifying – although I won’t say I didn’t work hard for it!
But it’s the job satisfaction that’s second to none. No two hours are the same – let alone days – and you’ll never, ever be bored.
Shannon Graham is nurse manager at Women’s Pathway, St Andrew’s Healthcare, Northampton