Do we afford ourselves the same understanding as we do our service users? Mental health editor, Hazel, suggests student nurses need to be open about their own mental health and ask for help when needed
Thursday February 4th was national Time to Talk day, an annual event led by the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
Their aim is to get as many people as possible across England talking about mental health. Breaking the silence around this once-taboo subject is key to tackle the stigma that traditionally surrounds it, but there is much more work to be done and we need to start with student nurses.
One of the first things that drew me to my university was a simple message as part of the applications website: “we actively welcome people who have first-hand experience of mental health services”.
”Self-stigma is, in my opinion, the single greatest threat to our wellbeing as student nurses”
I am privileged to have friends in my training who still use services and whose insight, strength and humour is a constant reminder that no one should ever (or need ever) be defined by their diagnosis. Yet, whilst some embrace it as merely a facet of their personality, others rile against it.
Self-stigma is, in my opinion, the single greatest threat to our wellbeing as student nurses.
As I spoke about previously in my piece on loneliness, student nurses experience a number of different stressors: in university, whilst on placement and in our private lives. This, inevitably, will affect us but how we process the stress and trauma will dictate if it becomes a problem.
Refusing to talk about problems with our own mental health - much like if we had a broken leg, collapsed lung or ill-timed positive pregnancy test - is not going to make them go away.
”Gone are the days where science taught us that mental illness in women is caused by the womb ‘wandering around the body and upsetting the brain’ ”
Gone are the days where science taught us that mental illness in women is caused by the womb ‘wandering around the body and upsetting the brain’ (although the Wandering Womb hypothesis is always good for a laugh).
Unfortunately, over time another incorrect and, potentially more destructive, idea has become popularised that mental illness is a choice or - worse - a weakness.
Anyone who has worked in this field or who has known someone who struggles with mental distress, will know that the condition they contend with is - to state the cliché - not a weakness but often a sign of having stayed strong for too long.
In our working lives, our assessments are hugely invasive. We routinely tackle subjects such as sexual trauma, FGM and side effects of medication including inability to climax. We expect the people who use our services to be open and honest with us whilst - using the values of Carl Rogers - we treat them with empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard.
When challenged, not a single student nurse that I have worked with would say that they believe the people they encounter in services are weak. Yet, when asked about their own mental health, too many struggle to address themselves with the same values they use in practice.
”When asked about their own mental health, too many struggle to address themselves with the same values they use in practice.”
Time to Talk day is an event that I have been involved in organising on our campus for the past three years. The conversations I have had as part of this specific event have given insight into the kindness that nurses from all fields show towards people struggling with their mental wellbeing.
But, too often, the same students will clam up about their own feelings. Too often I see colleagues trying to stay strong for too long.
I trust that the reasons why anyone (myself included) tries to do this are good, usually for fear of letting people down. But, it’s time for tough love, not allowing yourself to ask for help if you need it introduces a dangerous double-standard into your views on mental illness; maybe without you even realising.
”Not allowing yourself to ask for help introduces a dangerous double-standard into your views on mental illness”
If this persists, you perpetuate your own ‘us and them’ mind-set that is highly likely to go on to affect your professional practice. Trust me, I’ve had to call myself out on this.
As part of Time to Talk day, myself and many others made a pledge. I pledged to fight the stigma of mental distress for my loved ones and people in my care, because I believe no one should be made to feel weak or selfish when they are at their most vulnerable. My first step is to tackle my own stigma.