NT student editor, Heather Phelan, is here to offer some tips for student nurses looking to make it through their first mental health placements.
Heather Phelan, Nursing Times student editor - mental health branch
Ah, first year. I do not miss it. In some ways, it’s worse than the final year. The fear of going out on your first placement is intense. You know that feeling of apprehension before you ride a rollercoaster? The nerves are so bad that you almost don’t want to go on the ride, but once it’s over, you can’t wait to go on again.
That’s what your first placement is like. But it doesn’t mean you won’t hit some bumps - so here are some top tips to help you out along the way.
- Don’t believe everything you hear.
So many rumours circulate before you go out on placement.
There are the stories of nightmare mentors who make you cry and send you home because you forgot your name badge. And there are those tales you hear of how badly it can go wrong: “I heard of one student who miscalculated and accidentally gave a patient 1000mg of Lorazepam and they got struck off the NMC register BEFORE THEY EVEN QUALIFIED!”
I don’t know if any of these stories are true, but I know that no one I know experienced anything quite so horrific. These rumours only scare us because we’re so worried about messing up, and the fact that you’re worried shows you care enough to do a good job.
- Don’t expect too much of yourself.
More specifically, don’t be worried that too much will be expected of you.
Before my first placement, I would picture myself being left alone with a patient in a crisis, or dispensing medication on my own, or writing up my own care plans for new admissions.
But your mentor is there for a reason – they’re responsible for you, and if they’re doing their job properly, you won’t ever feel abandoned. If you struggle with something, there’s always someone around to help. You’re not supposed to be perfect, and those around you will know that.
- Don’t fear your scary mentor.
Every mentor has a different style. Some tell you to organise your day yourself and then vanish, never to be seen again.
Others will quiz you and keep asking until you get the right answer. But while most mentors are excited to teach you, it’s not unheard of to find those who feel like they don’t have time for you and are a bit resentful. If you truly feel that your mentor isn’t helping you learn, you should feel comfortable saying something about it.
You can speak to your mentor and tell them how you feel, mention it to your ward manager, or contact your link lecturer. It’s common to clash with a mentor’s style, or to find their methods challenging. And they should be stretching you. But if you really are uncomfortable, you don’t have to feel stuck.
- Don’t over-prepare.
It’s good to go over your assessment book beforehand, or to do a little research on the mental health conditions you’ll be seeing, but other than that, you don’t need to stress yourself out with preparation.
Before my first placement, my classmates and I were all worried about how much of the assessment book we needed filled out beforehand. The answer was, really, none of it.
Have a look through to familiarise yourself with it, figure out your transport for the morning (and have a back-up route planned in case of road closures or train delays), and then relax!
- Don’t feel guilty if you have down-time.
Whether it’s because lots of the patients are away on leave, or because all the nurses are busy writing up their notes, at some point, you will find yourself with nothing to do. I’ve found that this is the best time to do some extra research.
If you can, read your patients’ histories, which always interesting and beneficial for you. Research something that you’ve encountered on your ward, like a medication you’ve not heard of.
My first placement was on an inpatient unit for deaf adults, so whenever it was quiet, the other students and I would ask the interpreters to teach us some sign language. Any extra work you do like this will help you understand your patients more, and broaden your learning!