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The 'ordinary people' need to talk too

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Mental health branch student editor, Katie, deals with the after effects of ‘coming out’ about her own mental health needs and finds much-appreciated support from her peers

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

I wrote last month about “coming out” with coping as a student nurse: the emotional burden, the workload and balancing our lives. And in all honesty, after I emailed off my piece to be published, I went into panic mode again: that perhaps I had got it all wrong, that my university would come down on me like a ton of bricks somehow.

But of course, I was wrong; the kindness and understanding shown by tutors almost caught me off guard – I’d expected to face endless unbearable questions on my return to lectures the day after it was published; instead I just had many offers of “if you need anything…”. Other students thanked me and congratulated me, saying how grateful they were that my piece had made it easier for them to admit they could do with a little extra support.

Some people told me how brave they thought I was, and at first, I tried to deflect it, pointing out that it was “just a blog post” – a deeply personal one perhaps, but I have an immense amount of privilege in knowing that I can say “I’m struggling to cope” without the fear of losing my job or family or friends like so many others have, even now.

I must admit, writing last month’s post was not entirely selfless; in doing so, I made myself accountable to my friends and family to getting help, made a commitment to wind down my volunteering commitments, and proved to myself through the positive reactions I received that my fear of losing my place on my course was unfounded.

Since last month, I have thoroughly embraced the mindfulness that I mentioned last time, not just in a daily ten minute meditations, but in slowing down, eating more healthily and taking time to enjoy life. I make sure to stop and appreciate simple things: listening to music and looking out of the window on my commute instead of writing, studying and keeping on top of things.

I made a point of talking to some of my best friends, outlining all my fears about my second year of study – the long dark tunnel between the excitement of first year and the race to the finish in third year – and we established a plan to keep my head above water. I vowed to allow an hour of “self-care time” to my calendar each week, during which I aim not to be disturbed. I will use this time to indulge in something I enjoy – knitting, reading, watching Netflix – all the things I’ve been neglecting in recent months.

This week’s self-care time was spent going to see Ruby Wax, the self-described “poster girl for mental health”, at my local theatre. Having seen her excellent TED talk on mental health stigma, I was rather excited. It was, unfortunately, not what I had hoped it would be. I may have been heard to utter to a neighbour who had also been in the audience, “I think the TED talk was good because 9 minutes isn’t long enough to say anything really offensive”. In reality, it was less than ten minutes into the show before she made the link between murderers and people with psychosis (but that’s a rant for another blog post).

At the end of her performance, there was a short Q&A between Ruby and the audience, and a brave young lady spoke up about how she had recently been discharged from a year-long stay in a local private hospital. She enthused about reducing stigma through open conversation, using the words I myself used last month, “it’s OK to not be OK”. It was all very positive until Ruby asked the question on the minds of many: “How did you afford that?”

The young lady laughed and said something about how her mum had paid for the treatment, but Ruby’s question was a great one. While it is truly wonderful to have the Stephen Frys and the Lily Allens, the Catherine Zeta Joneses and Frank Brunos of the world – all these people that society places on pedestals opening up and showing that having a mental illness like depression or bipolar disorder doesn’t make you a terrible person – but the “ordinary people” need to talk too.

This includes the nurses who’ve experienced mental illness themselves, whatever branch they’re studying to work in. Those parents watching their critically ill children need to know it’s OK to fight the black dog, just as much as the lady with clinical depression in Room 3. It’s us, the little people who might not be able to afford extended stays at the Priory or the Retreat; it’s us who should be saying “you can get better” – because we can. It might not be easy, it might be a long haul, and it will probably be hard work for you, your friends and family, but mental illness doesn’t have to be the end of the road, and part of our job, whatever our branch, is to remind people of that.


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

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