“Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult” is the memorable line from the mouth of bumbling Simon Foster MP in the hilarious political comedy In The Loop.
This oratory fumble comes as he is played like a chess piece, torn between the daily woes of his Northampton constituents and the vulgar realities of war politics waged by those who hold the power to aggrandise and suppress whole communities at will.
It may appear out of context to relate this to my experience as a student nurse but it was this precise darkly comic quote that came to mind during a fantastic few weeks with a team of dedicated key workers on the front line of a local drug and alcohol service.
I had very little experience coming into the field of mental health as a student nurse so I took the opportunity to act on the polite encouragement ‘if you have any questions just ask’. As is often the case with Paxman my own questioning was intense and far-reaching; I left no stone or urine testing pot unturned. My thirst for information was insatiable, fuelled by the wealth of fascinating experiences the staff were more than willing to share.
As it transpired my questioning mentality was valuable for a number of reasons. Firstly, asking to spend time with staff afforded me an insight into a ‘day-in-the-life’ so to speak of a wide range of committed health professionals; but more interestingly asking them about their background and why they came to be in the service provided what felt like a brief outlet for them to express their passion for nursing again, if only for a fleeting moment before the reality of barely manageable caseloads, reports and targets returned like a heavy fog.
At times I felt like Louis Theroux getting an exclusive insight into what is often presented in the media as a murky, mysterious world of mental illness, people ostracised and outcast from the rest of their community. Clive Stafford Smith, founder of the human rights charity ‘Reprieve’, noted “the hatred society manages to drum up when it’s trying to kill an individual is phenomenal”. Indeed, if you take a look at any tabloid paper in the UK the will to suppress and castigate those who were born into poverty, illness and neglect is similarly striking.
It is a sad reality that the powers-that-be will never be fully open to experiencing the placement structure of a nursing course or similar. Imagine if your local MP spent a twelve-week placement in a drug and alcohol service and then reported back to parliament. Regardless of his or her political stance they would struggle to put into words the sheer scale and complexity of the current system and the frailty of the families whose lives are a constant, relentless physical and psychological struggle to survive.
They would see staff wrestling to untangle the intricacies of a confusing benefits system, sheltered housing, law courts, social services, probation, debt services, charities and trusts. And each one of them are seeking pots of money here, there and nowhere, money that is here today, gone tomorrow, whilst deftly encouraging and cultivating positive trusting relationships with chaotic clients guiding them along the path of least harm.
So what did I take from my time on the frontline? It is an endless battle of will. If you decide on this vocation (and make no mistake it is a vocation) you are making a life choice to accept anyone who reaches out for help. You are committing to guide them, sometimes kicking and screaming, through a barrage of red tape to show them they are worth the effort, that you can do this together and not to give up.
The reality is the system is set up to prevent the most vulnerable from helping themselves. The role of the health professional is to justify their client’s existence to themselves, society and those that run the country. Unfortunately we now live in a world where the most vulnerable have to justify their very existence by standing up, making a declaration, fighting to be heard on why they should be allowed to survive. You are on the frontline. You may be someone’s last hope. And it will be one of the most rewarding things you can do with your life.
Tom Mason is a current nursing student