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Top 5 tips for making the most of your time as a mental health student nurse


Katie looks back on her first year and reflects on what she wishes someone had told her before she started

Katie Sutton_SNT

Katie Sutton is Student NT’s mental health branch student editor


As a student nurse, we spend 50% of our learning in practice. When I first started my degree, that sounded like an awful lot and I was worried I’d be thrown in the deep end without having a clue what to do. But all your mentors and staff nurses and sisters and nursing assistants had to start from somewhere, just like you.

I wrote for Student Nursing Times last summer about how the level of paperwork took me by surprise on my first placement. Now, as I’m coming to the end of my third placement and first year, I’ve been reflecting on the other surprising lessons I’ve learned in the last year, both as a student nurse and an HCA/NA. So much of it obvious with the clarity of hindsight, and yet surprising at the same time…


1) “Never waste 1-1 time”

My mentor passed this lesson on to me on my first day of this placement, having learned it from his own mentor over six years ago. If you’re due to spend 1-1 time with a patient, and their care plan needs to be reviewed, don’t go to their room empty handed. Take the care plan with you, use it as conversation point and write it up whilst in the room. The patient feels involved AND you get some of that dreaded paperwork done!


2) “The nursing assistants are the second best teachers you’ve got”

They know what’s going down on the ward floor much better than the nurses and doctors. They let you know when a patient looks upset and they’re likely to be the first to know about incidents like a patient self-harming because they’re doing observations. They’re the ones you can observe doing blood pressure monitoring and urine testing and who’ll chat to you about the “discuss…” elements of your clinical skills. They’ll refresh your memory before your mentor assesses you, and remind you how to fold a hospital corner before they assess your bedmaking skills. Any student nurse who is also an NA will know this already, but for those of you who aren’t, they are your new best friends: do not underestimate them!


3) “The best teachers, bar none, are patients”

Nobody can tell you what they’re experiencing better than the patient themself. Who else can tell you what their voices are like, what it feels like to have a shadow follow you around every day, what depression makes THEM feel like? The patient is the expert, especially in mental health where conditions vary drastically from presentation to presentation, never mind patient to patient. The best way to learn about the conditions you’re treating and how people like to be helped, is from the people who suffer from them. And this is something to carry forward even past your student years: a good care plan takes into account what the patient wants from staff, and what they want to achieve - not just what the doctor who saw them for half an hour this week wants.


4) “You won’t like all of your patients… and that’s OK”

Nursing isn’t too unlike the “real world”. There will be patients who will insult you, who will refuse medication, who will be needy and demanding to the point that you can’t look after anybody else, and who’ll refuse to let students be involved in their care (or even qualified nurses, for that matter). You won’t write off your career simply because the odd patient rubs you up the wrong way: being a nurse doesn’t have to mean having a heart of gold and the patience of a saint: as long as you’re kind and respectful, and most importantly, don’t let your feelings affect the quality of care you give.


5) “Remember to laugh”

Some days are so busy that they fly by; some are so quiet they feel like they’ll never end - night shifts especially. Then you have some that are busy AND feel like they’ll never end! The key thing for getting through a tough shift is to remember to smile and laugh: if you’re oozing positive energy, you’ll feel better and the patients will feel better; if you’ve a face like sour grapes, it’ll just last even longer. As someone on my ward put it during handover this week, after I joked with only a hint of sarcasm that I’d never met such a professional team: “If we didn’t laugh like this, we’d be out there”.


What have you learned since starting your degree about being a nurse that nobody told you in the classroom?


Katie Sutton is Student NT’s mental health branch student editor


Read more tips and advice to support you through your nursing degree on Student Nursing Times



Readers' comments (3)

  • tinkerbell

    Well done Katie for learning some valuable lessons that will keep you emotionally grounded. She who laughs.............lasts! It is especially important to be able to laugh at ourselves and realise how fragile we are and the strength and support we receive from each other makes a big difference to our own wellbeing so we can give it back to our patients in return.

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  • Thanks for the top tips. I am not student nurse but looking forward to starting September. HCAs are most approachable staff, agreed.

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  • It is quite surprising that you have quite a lot of experience under one year as Nursing student. Well done

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