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'It's okay if you can't always be strong, even if you're working in mental health'


When mental health branch student editor, Katie, felt the shadow of the black dog catching up with her, she found she had the tools to help herself through

Katie Sutton_SNT

Katie Sutton is Student Nursing Times’ mental health branch student editor

Music has tremendous healing powers, whether as a soothing meditative tool, or listened to through headphones to hush hallucinations, or even heartbreaking lyrics that make you feel like it’s OK to release the tears you’ve been bottling up.

I have alluded before to coming into mental health nursing as a result of experiencing mental health problems myself. Today, I want to talk a little about how music has helped me.

I remember clearly the evening of 31st January 2009. I was sitting next to my mum, high in the rafters of the Manchester Evening News Arena, and one of our favourite bands, Keane, began to play a song I had listened to countless times, but now heard with fresh ears for the first time.

//If only I don’t bend and break

I’ll meet you on the other side

I’ll meet you in the light

If only I don’t suffocate

I’ll meet you in the morning when you wake.//

(Bend and Break, written by Tim Rice-Oxley, Tom Chaplin and Richard Hughes, 2005)

I wasn’t consciously searching for meaning, but as I listened to the words rise up from the stage, tears began to roll down my face, and looking back, it may just have been that song that made me realise that anti-depressants alone could not fix my problems. Over the next two years, I forged a path to recovery through self-discovery and CBT. It is those years, guided by wonderful NHS nurses and therapists, that led me to my degree.

Five years on, I began to recognise the classic symptoms again. Poor appetite, reduced sleep, low mood, anxiety. Three weeks ago, faced with close friends in a busy bar and a conviction that I was not welcome, I had my first panic attack in three years.

Over the next few days, I took some time to shake the shadow of the black dog catching up with me and, feeling better, I congratulated myself, thinking proudly of how learning to spot the warning signs had helped me hit the nail on the head before it got too bad.

“Fellow students, nurses and nurses-to-be, please remember: we are not above this, we do not have to be”

Still, knowing it would not be that simple, I arranged things to look forward to; rock climbing with a friend, and an evening with my partner and some of my best friends. But before the week was out, bad news came with dark clouds overhead, and as the first day of the weekend dragged along, hour by hour, I only felt worse, and then I had another //Bend and Break// experience:

//Lay down your load ‘cause every day it’s gonna grow And bask in the sunshine Try to pay no mind Try to pay no mind at all To all the things that you don’t know You’ve got time to realise you’re shielded by the hands of love ‘Cause you are young…//

(You Are Young, written by Tim Rice-Oxley, / Tom Chaplin, Richard Hughes and Jesse Quin, 2012)

When I got home, I deactivated my personal social media accounts and texted the friend I had talked to before applying for my degree, a registered mental health nurse who graduated from the same course as I’m studying now who has struggled with depression himself. He called me immediately and I sobbed down the phone to him as he reassured me that I could get through this, that yes, I was catastrophising in thinking that if Occupational Health or my personal tutor got wind of my current state, they’d deem me unfit to study.

He recommended a phone app to guide me through some mindfulness “Get Some Headspace”, which encouraged me to take some time for myself and a break from my commitments for the weekend, focusing on things that make me happy instead.

I confessed to him that as a future mental health nurse I feel like I shouldn’t be struggling myself, admitting before he could say it that I was being too hard on myself, that if a patient told me they “shouldn’t” be depressed I’d be trying to reassure them that it was not their fault.

If those quote images that get posted to Facebook all the time are to be believed, World Mental Health Awareness Week happens at least four or five times every year; but there is one valuable thought that goes with it: “Depression is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being too strong for too long”.

I wrote this post sat under a viaduct in the centre of Manchester, trains rattling over my head and people walking by every few minutes, and I am filled with more calm than I have known in weeks.

“I feel paradoxically stronger for admitting that I feel weak, for asking for help”

Fellow students, nurses and nurses-to-be, please remember: we are not above this, we do not have to be. It is okay if you can’t always be strong, even if you’re working in mental health. Especially if you’re working in mental health.

After all, how can you look after other people if you’re not looking after you first of all?


Katie Sutton is Student Nursing Times’ mental health branch student editor



Readers' comments (4)

  • It is great that you are able to share your experiences here Katie, and, as you rightly point out, the need to look after ourselves if we are to offer support to others. Ensuring we have the "right tools" in place for this are vital.

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  • Brilliant article. keep on and you will make a great nurse as well as a mh one.

    "Fellow students, nurses and nurses-to-be, please remember: we are not above this, we do not have to be. It is okay if you can’t always be strong, even if you’re working in mental health. Especially if you’re working in mental health."

    this paragraph is an excellent summing up and I am sure most patients would prefer if those looking after showed from time to time that they are also human, share the same problems as everyone else and have their own ways of coping with them and are most certainly 'not above this'.

    I can think of one example where a group of MH nurses negated every difficulty patients expressed (? positive psychology techniques) and even in normal conversation (if it is possible to have such a thing with mh personnel) where one might grumble at some everyday occurrence such as service received, or prices rises, etc. which we all do from time to time and they would always reply how it was no problem for them, how well they managed, etc. leaving patients feeling diminished, not being empathised with and not being taken seriously. Even when speaking with a friend it is good and comforting when they agree with you on some points and can related a similar experience they have had, whereas conversations with these nurses often ended up feeling like a battle of wits and leaving patients exhausted, tired and confused. Nobody reasonably expects others to agree with everything others say for fairly obvious reasons but at least these highly trained and well meaning nurses could have looked at their ways and sometimes met the patient half way to help them believe in themselves rather than as some comparatively inferior human being who persistently gets things wrong.

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  • Louise Goodyear

    Thought provoking read Katie. You are a strong person for recognising these feelings and taking care of yourself, as you say we have to especially if we are to look after others. Take care, be kind to yourself, and thank you for sharing such a personal journey.

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  • Katie Sutton

    Thank you for your kind comments. Happy to say that having taken a week or so to slow down on my commitments, taking up some mindfulness, and talking to family and friends, I'm feeling a little better already - I'm still going to have to be conscious to to take care of myself, and I don't expect remembering to take it easy to be, well, easy! - but I have a wonderful supportive network through friends and university to help me get back on my feet.

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