One family’s 134-year history of continuous service to mental health nursing looks set to come to an end with the retirement of the most recent member to join the profession.
“When I was growing up I was often around nurses. It was in my blood”
Gary Ford, who until recently worked as a mental health nurse practitioner for Southern Health Foundation Trust, is not exaggerating when he says mental health nursing is “in his blood”.
His father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, great grandfather and great-great grandfather plus other relatives all worked with people with mental illnesses.
In particular, the family has a strong association with Knowle Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, which opened in 1852 as the Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum.
Mr Ford’s great-great grandfather went to work there as a baker shortly after the facility opened. His son started working there in 1881 as a nurse, along with his sister and step-sister.
“They were attendants really, because at that time there was no real mental health nursing,” said Mr Ford.
His grandfather, Alfred Ford, followed suit, starting off as an attendant but working his way up to the role of superintendent – one of the most senior posts in the hospital at that time.
The family lived in housing attached to the hospital, which was where Mr Ford’s father Ralph was born. He started off as a porter but went on to train as a nurse in the 1950s, where he also met his future wife and nursing colleague Elizabeth.
“When I was growing up I was often around nurses,” said Mr Ford. “I’d go into the wards and meet some of the patients. The older ladies especially used to like meeting children. It was in my blood and part of what we did.”
However, Mr Ford – whose wife Carly is a multiple sclerosis specialist nurse at Southampton General Hospital – admits he was initially reluctant to go into “the family job”.
“When I left school I did not want to do nursing,” he said. “I went into engineering but I didn’t really like it.”
His mother then offered to get him an interview with one of the nurse tutors at Knowle. “I never looked back,” said Mr Ford, adding that he “absolutely loves the job”.
“No one day is the same – you never know what you are going into when you go onto the ward and I have loved helping people,” he told Nursing Times.
He worked at Knowle until the hospital started to be wound down, prior to its eventual closure in 1996.
He moved to Southampton in 1986, subsequently doing in a variety of roles in acute, rehabilitation, and community nursing. He was working in a community-based role at the Antelope House mental health unit when he retired in July due to ill health.
However, he said he doubted his ancestors would recognise modern mental health nursing.
“My grandfather, great grandfather and great-great grandfather would not recognise it at all. In my great grandfather’s day his role was basically like a jailer, you just contained people with violence and they didn’t have the medication we have today,” said Mr Ford.
He too has seen changes in the profession since he started – and not all for the better.
“When I started it was a different style of nursing than it is today,” he said. “It was more hands on with clients. Nowadays you don’t really get out of the office and especially on the wards there is way too much bureaucracy and paperwork. You end up giving less time to patients.”
He said he has also seen funding plummet, while workload and stress levels had risen. However, there are some plus points including efforts to de-stigmatise mental illness and put it on a par with physical illness.
“There is a lot more about mental illness being normal,” said Mr Ford. “People throughout history have suffered with depression, bipolar disorder and psychosis, but it was suppressed and hidden. Now people are willing to talk about their problems, including public figures and nurses.”
“I personally tell people that I have suffered depression in the past – we all do,” he said. “I think it would be good to do more with schools and get kids, especially teenagers, talking about mental health.”
He believes his own daughter Natalie, 13, has what it takes to go into the profession. “I keep saying to her: ‘you would make a good nurse one day’,” he said.