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Sarah-Jane Rexon: my first year as a mental health student nurse

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I am currently coming to the end of my first year studying mental health nursing and what a year it’s been.

It has been an extremely busy, exciting and interesting and it’s challenged me in ways I had never expected. 

Looking around the lecture room on my first day, I saw twenty five like-minded individuals looking enthusiastic and excited. I was worried that I would feel out of place as a mature student, however, people of all ages and backgrounds were sitting opposite me and I started to feel more relaxed. Not for long though, soon late night essay sessions (because you want to finish one more paragraph) and the nightmare that is Harvard Referencing left me wishing there were more than 24 hours in a day. 

Settling into university life was difficult for me to begin with. Getting used to the multitude of assignments, the academic standard that was expected of me and the realisation that I’m not great at taking notes was overwhelming. But with the support of my colleague and tutors, I got stuck in and embraced the challenge. I even put myself forward for student rep. 

The only thing that hasn’t changed is the way the word “exam” never fails to fill me with sheer terror.

Driving home from placement was a different story, it left me with the stark realisation that I was not in fact Florence Nightingale and had a lot to learn

University consists of six month’s theory and six month’s placement, which means you can get all your exams and essays out of the way and spend the next 6 months focusing on developing your clinical skills. And, of course, getting used to life on the ward without the worry of being faced with referencing after a long day.

Driving to the hospital on my first day of placement I was eager, excited and of course planned to be “super nurse.” Driving home from placement was a different story, it left me with the stark realisation that I was not in fact Florence Nightingale and had a lot to learn. 

The great thing about nursing is that no day is ever the same; there are so many opportunities to learn and experience a variety of scenarios. On my second day I was observing a course of ECT, fascinated by the procedure but also hoping I didn’t faint. Thankfully I didn’t. 

I usually hear my flat mates leaving to go out just as I am getting into bed and setting my alarm for some unearthly hour

One thing that surprised me was how invaluable communication skills are; they are the backbone of nursing.

During my university interview I claimed to be “good at communication” and can honestly say I wasn’t that good at it during my first week of placement. I didn’t know what to say, I worried I would upset someone by saying the wrong thing and  had to learn the art of non-verbal communication quickly. I learnt that you just have to be yourself, to listen, not everyone will want to talk when you try to engage them, non-verbal communication speaks volumes and not to be afraid of humour. 

I remember when all my friends were at university and I would listen to their extravagant stories of fun-filled, non-stop activities and naturally assumed that this would be me. No. I usually hear my flat mates leaving to go out just as I am getting into bed and setting my alarm for some unearthly hour for my early shift the next day. 

“Why did you choose mental health nursing?” is a question I often hear. I chose to do it because it is something that has always interested me and I am passionate about supporting and caring for people. Don’t get me wrong, there have been bad days where I have questioned my suitability for nursing whilst having a good cry but the good days outweigh the bad. Other times I get asked the question “but why? Aren’t you scared of ‘them’…” and those are the times when I tell people how passionate I am about challenging the stigma and the negative attitudes, as, after-all the statistics say 1 in 4 of us will experience a mental health issue in our life time. 

I am excited to progress to second year as there is so much more to learn and I’ll be one step closer to being qualified. Of course there will be days where I will shed a few more tears, get fed up of looking for one more reference and be envious when my flat mates are drinking wine and I have orange juice but in true British style I will “Keep Calm And Carry On” as it’s what I want to do. And I love it. 

Sarah-Jane Rexon is a first year student nurse studying mental health nursing at Bucks University.

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Readers' comments (3)

  • Jayne Williams

    I'm a first year mature student studying learning disability nursing. I too often get asked, 'Why learning disability nursing?' and 'Can't they be aggressive?' I often tell them that this is generally not so and even in the case of challenging behaviour there is usually a valid reason behind it, such as not being able to communicate what is wanted or needed, being in pain, frustration etc. These questions used to really annoy me, but as you say it gives us plenty of opportunity to try to minimise some barriers, help reduce stigma and hopefully in the future society will have a better understanding of our client groups and show a little more tolerance and understanding. Good luck and best wishes for year two and three of your studies!

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  • As an Adult Branch student about to go into second year also. I can tell you that there is just as much chance of encountering aggressive patients as there is in any other branch. Everyone is vulnerable and scared when they are ill whether it be mentally or physically and every body copes and reacts differently to it so you never know what might happen! I'm all for challenging the stigma of mental health illness and learning disability though! I think its appalling that people are still marginalised due to illness of any kind!

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  • I'm a first year MH student and can totally relate to this!
    There's another article, which is very similar to this one, about working in Mental Health- can also relate to this well!

    https://www.nursingtimes.net/student-nursing-times/a-new-year-for-a-new-nursing-student/5040465.article?blocktitle=Student-life&contentID=8057

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