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It’s okay not to be okay

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I have suffered from mental health issues in the past. I am not ashamed of this and I believe these struggles have helped to shape me into who I am. 

They have made me a more compassionate, empathetic person and hopefully will make me a better, more understanding nurse. I am not alone.

Many student nurses struggle with their mental health and we need to be doing more to help them.

”There is a dearth of research into the exact figures of student nurses who are affected by mental health issues in the UK”

There is much talk of high attrition rates in nursing student programmes across the UK, I would suggest this is in large part due to lack of mental health support.

Unfortunately, there is a dearth of research into the exact figures of student nurses who are affected by mental health issues in the UK, and the causes are multifactorial. We must be investigating this further.

Being a student nurse is not easy: there is academic pressure; the physical, emotional and mental demands of placements; financial worries about changes in student funding; many students move away from home for the first time; many have to juggle raising a family or are carers, and many have to balance multiple part-time jobs to scrape by financially.

The system is failing them, and it is easy to see why many struggle under the immense pressure. We need to address these issues. Our generation of nurses will not look back on their time in education with the rose-tinted glasses of our older colleagues.

Many student nurses fear disclosing mental health issues, worrying that they will not be allowed to complete their course or if they do they will be seen as unfit to join the register. During a Twitter discussion earlier this year several poignant comments were made:

“I’m sure many people don’t come forward soon enough, worried about stigma and how they’ll be perceived.”

“Many I think fear coming forward because they worry it might affect their ‘fitness to practise’”.

“I know of a student with mental health issues and her teacher called her out in front of the whole class saying she shouldn’t have become a nurse because of them.”

I am aware that Twitter offers an isolated snapshot. However, sentiments like these are repeated. Student mental health is high up on the agenda for UK universities and there is some outstanding practice taking place.

“How can we be expected to look after others if we cannot look after ourselves?”

There are facilitated discussions during and after placement where students can decompress emotionally and mentally, whether in one-to-one or group discussions, however this is not universal, and it needs to be available for all students. This needs to take place in a safe space with protected time.

How can we be expected to look after others if we cannot look after ourselves? Resilience training also appears high on everyone’s agenda, and, of course, student nurses must be resilient, but ‘resilience’ in itself seems to have become a bit of a buzzword.

More needs to be done to tackle the issues that cause them to have to become so resilient. We also need better support offered while on placement. Again, a snapshot incident, but when one student nurse disclosed mental health issues they reported:

“I deferred a placement as a result of mental ill-health, year lead was fantastic, but when making up hours I disclosed to [the senior charge nurse] I was absent due to mental ill-health rather than physical, and he outright said I wouldn’t cope with the placement before I even started.”

Earlier this year, it was sadly reported that two student nurses ended their own lives, which rocked the nursing and education communities.

Following the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) annual congress this year, a working group has been established regards Suicidal Awareness led by the RCN’s Mental Health Forum.

I sit on this group as a student representative and we are aiming to conceptualise a communication toolkit for student nurses regards suicide awareness, managing suicidal ideation and ’what to do’.

I would urge anyone who is struggling with their mental health to speak to someone. Whether it is a friend, a family member or someone at your university.

At university, you will be allocated either a personal tutor or an academic advisor who is there to listen. Or if you don’t want to speak with them, there should be student wellbeing or counselling services.

The RCN also provide counselling services. On placement talk to your mentor or senior charge nurse. Also, talk to your GP. There is no shame in reaching out for help. It’s okay not to be okay. You are not alone.

I would also urge fellow students, nurses and university staff to be mindful of the signs that someone may be struggling. Make yourself aware. You could save a life.

If you are feeling suicidal, you can contact the Samaritans.

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