My job

Not so ‘hard to reach’

Dorcas Gwata: ‘There is no such thing as “hard to reach” groups, just lack of innovation’.

‘Prison is no place for children,’ says clinical nurse specialist Dorcas Gwata, winner of the Nursing Standard 2015 mental health nursing award.

Picture credit: Nathan Clarke

Ms Gwata works in the Westminster Integrated Gang Unit – part of Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust’s Westminster child and adolescent service – where she provides mental health interventions to those involved in gang culture.

‘The young people I look after are affected by stabbings, anxieties, social phobias from gang reprisals and psychosis associated with high levels of substance misuse from an early age,’ says Ms Gwata.

‘Young girls who associate with gang members are vulnerable to sexual exploitation, which often spirals into self-harming behaviours, anxiety and depression.’

After qualifying as a mental health nurse in 2000, Ms Gwata worked on a medium secure mental health unit at Homerton Hospital in Hackney, London, and as a mental health staff nurse at Charing Cross Hospital in Hammersmith.

In 2003, she started a ten-year post as psychiatric liaison nurse in the A&E department at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington – the hospital where eight-year-old Victoria Climbié had died three years earlier after a long period of abuse at the hands of her guardians.

Ms Gwata says the shift in her career came in 2013 when she became a mental health adviser for the AFRUCA charity – Africans Unite Against Child Abuse – established in 2001 in the wake of the Climbié case. The charity advocates for Africans in the UK affected by human trafficking, female genital mutilation, witchcraft branding and child abuse. It was while working there that Ms Gwata says she developed her specialist safeguarding skills.

Ms Gwata uses innovative methods to engage with young people, meeting them in youth clubs, prisons, schools and on the streets. She believes her role challenges the notion that young people affected by gang culture fall into the ‘hard to reach’ category and are difficult to work with.

‘There is no such thing as “hard to reach” groups, just lack of innovation,’ she says. ‘Good engagement with young people and families depends on compassionate, non-judgemental and empathetic care. It is great to achieve a breakthrough with a group of people who are highly stigmatised and excluded by society.’

Ms Gwata has a passion for global health. In 2009, she studied public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and her blog, Tribal Sands, was nominated for Zimbabwe international female blogger of the year 2015.

‘It was unsettling working in the UK and being aware of the global health challenges in my home country Zimbabwe and throughout the African continent,’ she says. ‘We need to change the stigma wider society holds against people with mental illness and HIV. Working in public health, you can have a greater effect on a wider population’.

Further information

Nursing Standard award winners

AFRUCA charity

Tribal Sands blog

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