Stuart McKenzie says he is not built to be any kind of nurse other than a mental health nurse
“As a good psychiatric nurse, you have to know when to speak and when to keep your mouth shut and observe,” says Stuart McKenzie.
That skill is also useful in his role as chair of Congress at the Royal College of Nursing. When he took over the role earlier this year, he became something of a legend. Faced with failing voting technology and endless disruption to his neatly planned schedule, he overcame all adversities. And that, he believes, is what nurses excel at.
Mr McKenzie started his career as a nursery nurse before studying for a BSc in psychiatric mental health nursing at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. He loved nursery nursing so much he continued with it, funding his way through university by working bank shifts in a role created for him by the children’s hospital - he was the only “bank nursery nurse”.
After graduation he worked as a staff nurse in acute care at The State Hospital, a secure forensic mental health hospital at Carstairs. He says the experience shaped him.
“I have a huge respect for nurses who go and do that job and look after people - many of whom have been convicted of criminal offences - without judgment. Those nurses work with people many of whom society has given up on.
“They’re locked in too, with no security guards and they don’t buy into the stories they hear - they just treat everyone as an individual. The person’s history is used to shape risk assessments but they do not prejudice the nurse.”
After four years, he moved to Glasgow to work in Crisis services in the community, in one of the most deprived parts of the city.
He saw people who lived in abject poverty or who had escaped the tyranny of dictatorship, attempted suicide, had psychosis and drug addiction treated in nurse-led services, which made him very proud. But that service could help some people, but not everyone.
Some of the most talented insightful people I have worked with in this job have been the patients
“You never forget the names of the people you work with who take their own lives. Any nurse in any specialism knows they don’t have all the answers and people will always do the unexpected.
“I will never know how many lives I have saved because we can’t measure that like you can in an A&E.” But he says that seeing people at their most vulnerable is a privilege and going into homes and helping people be the best they can be is why he loves his job.
“Some of the most talented insightful people I have worked with in this job have been the patients,” he says.
“In the past, mental health services may have done a lot to people, now we want to do things with people,” he says.
Working with patients is the essence of his present job as clinical nurse manager of the forensic rehabilitation service in Ayrshire and Arran.
“This job ignited my passion for nursing again,” says Mr McKenzie. “I have a great manager who lets me don a uniform and speak to patients. And that is what I love.”
Part of his job involves managing the furniture workshop and gardens in the hospital, providing occupational and industrial therapies. “It gives people meaning when they’ve, say, been in hospital 22 years, had a lack of opportunity, started on meds and have put on weight. It gives them a sense of worth to make a stool or farmer’s bench we can sell.”
Mr McKenzie says there are also therapeutic benefits to working with tactile materials, such as wood and rubber, and says that the smiles all around the workshop are testament to the success of the venture, which he now wants to become a social enterprise.
He says that believing in patients is what keeps him enthusiastic about nursing. “There is such a lot of prejudice about mental health patients, and now in the workshop, we teach them how to use chainsaws - imagine doing that a few years ago!” But he says mental health nursing is about giving patients one more chance.
Mr McKenzie adores his job and says nurses who don’t should consider their future in the profession or consider looking for a new challenge.
“If you’ve lost your passion for nursing, he says, “only two people will get hurt: you and the patient.”