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‘Every nurse should experience working in a mental health unit’

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A paediatric student nurse reflects on her placement experience in an adolescent mental health unit

I started my six-week placement in an adolescent mental health unit completely thrown in the deep end with no previous knowledge or experience of mental health. 

Initially, I was really worried about starting this placement; I felt my skill level in communicating with teenagers, (especially those with mental health issues) was poor. As a paediatric student nurse, I had neither dealt with nor been taught anything related to mental health, as it is not in our “normal” curriculum.

My first day on the ward was really difficult. I turned up at the unit clueless. I had no mentor and was given a set of keys and asked to sit in their living area full of young people and just chat with them. As I had no previous knowledge of mental health issues, I had no idea about what was the right or wrong thing to discuss, I didn’t know that just a simple word from me would be a trigger for that young person. I felt vulnerable and uncomfortable, however now I look back and laugh at myself. 

After spending some time talking with the youngsters, I thought the best thing for myself and them would be to look at the background of each patient. I asked a member of staff if I could see their files to get an idea about what they liked and disliked. I also asked if I could be part of a session where the adolescents individually drew their list of likes and dislikes. I found once I had read the files and been part of this session, I felt more comfortable holding discussions with them and it seemed that they too felt more comfortable talking with me.

My most memorable experience while being on the unit was something one of the young people said to me. She asked me “if I was insured against being attacked”. Even though at the time I thought I hope I am insured, I just said “Why would I need to be insured? I’m not going to be attacked.” On my last day, that young girl told me that it was the best response I could have given her, as it not only made me sound confident but it actually made her feel safe with me.

I feel that while working on this placement I truly saw another side of nursing and finished on an extremely positive note with a great relationship with the youngsters and the staff.

Undergoing this experience and working so closely with adolescent patients, I learnt the importance of preparation and always reading notes before meeting patients. 

I now understand the struggle of dealing with mental health issues and the effect of both good and bad community support. I feel that every nurse should experience what I have, as it would certainly improve our management of mental health.

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