Katie was shocked when a mentor warned her not to tell staff members about her own mental health problems, surely fellow nurses would be the most understanding?
As student nurses, we have the NMC Code drilled into us pretty regularly.
I remember looking through the statements towards the start of my first year and thinking “I’ll never remember all this”, but also “Well, this seems like common sense…”
Of course, as with many things, when you actually devote some time to thinking about it, it starts to get complicated. And there is one thing from the Code that comes up again and again in conversation with mentors and other students alike: professional boundaries.
I’m pretty open about how I’ve struggled with my own mental health, both recently and in the past, and it usually comes up in the first day or two of my placements. At some point during the placement, my mentors so far have asked some variation on the question “So why do you want to be a mental health nurse?”
I’m always quite candid when I answer; I don’t go into the gory details, but I do say that I’ve battled anxiety and depression in the past, but managed to overcome my difficulties with the help of the NHS. I’ve been taught skills I can re-use over and over again to overcome setbacks like the one I faced heading into my second year, and that this is my way of giving back.
Their reply is invariably something like “Oh, that’s nice” followed by a short pause and “Be careful how much you tell the patients.”
My mentor on my most recent placement went a step further, and warned me of being too open even with staff. “People talk,” he said, and I was kind of shocked by that. I understand why we can’t be too open with patients: while chapter four of the Code talks about honesty and transparency, chapter one talks about professional boundaries. As much as it might help some patients to know that their named nurse has some personal insight into what they’re going through and has experienced similar themselves, when I’m at work, my focus must be on my patients, not me.
My most recent placement began a few days after the Student Nursing Times Awards, where I’d been having a very similar conversation with Rachael, the SNT Children and Young People’s branch editor, and Fran, Nursing Times’ Acting Online Editor. I’d spoken about a different (but similarly personal) situation, “I don’t tell the staff on my placements everything, even when I’m welcomed as part of their team. They’re still the ones teaching and assessing me, and I don’t want my personal and professional life to mix too much”. I likened it to being friends with a manager.
And yet, I was genuinely surprised by mentor’s words – while I wouldn’t share the intimate details of my personal life with the staff, the idea that nurses working on a mental health ward would talk about a student (or anyone) who had disclosed a history of mental health issues behind their back shocked me.
It really got me wondering, is there really any benefit to being open about our history for those of us with experience of being the patient (or their family), or could it do us more harm than good?
There’s a definite suggestion that patients appreciate nurses being open with them, that for some people it could improve the bond, the therapeutic relationship – but is there any good in being open with the staff who aren’t mentoring us themselves?
Should we be scared that those assessing us might be talking about us when we’re not listening – and is this just one ward, or was my mentor simply the only person to tell me it happens?
What have you experienced? What do you think?
Katie Sutton is Student Nursing Times’ mental health branch student editor