Nursing studies

COVID-19: what it’s like working and studying in the middle of a pandemic

One nursing student’s experience working as a healthcare assistant at an isolation unit for mental health patients

Rebecca Hackfath: ‘I don’t think you can ever be prepared to deal with a pandemic in
the middle of doing a degree’

A second-year mental health nursing student has been helping mental health inpatients who are in an isolation unit after contracting COVID-19.

‘If you’re isolated and have a mental health condition, it can be very difficult, especially if you’re not allowed any visitors,’ says Rebecca Hackfath, who is working as a healthcare assistant at Bradgate Mental Health Unit at Glenfield Hospital, part of Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust.

Self-isolation can be extremely confusing for patients with mental health issues

Ms Hackfath is managing to work 3-5 shifts a week as well as continuing her studies at Leicester’s De Montfort University. ‘I can’t sit back,’ she says. ‘I need to help people. I’m a nurse, and just because someone has a physical illness, it doesn’t mean we stop caring for their mental illness.’

While some mental health patients understand what is happening and are happy to stay in their rooms and self-isolate, for others it’s extremely confusing, she says. ‘For those who have conditions such as dementia, it can be very distressing.

‘They can’t have visitors and they don’t understand why doctors and nurses are coming into their room wearing masks and gloves.

‘It's difficult at home, let alone being in hospital.’

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Adapting to a different way of learning during the pandemic

Ms Hackfath chose to become a mental health nurse after first-hand experiences of being cared for when she was diagnosed with anorexia in her late teens. ‘I wanted to help those who were going through the same thing as me, but back then I couldn’t,’ she says.

‘Just because someone has a physical illness, it doesn’t mean we stop caring for their mental illness’

Rebecca Hackfath, second-year mental health nursing student

‘It became something to aim towards. I received amazing care and support from different services... so I wanted to use what I’d learned to help others.’

Now halfway through her course, she knows she made the right decision. ‘It’s going well and I’ve enjoyed all my placements so far,’ she says. She is still on course to finish her degree as scheduled, although future placements are being rearranged and studies have moved online.

‘It’s an ever-changing situation, but they’re trying to keep everything running normally as much as possible,’ she says. 

How COVID-19 has changed care on the mental health ward

Fellow nursing students who Ms Hackfath shares a house with have all returned home to their families. ‘My family knows how much I love what I’m doing and that it’s something I really want to do, so they’re really supportive,’ she says.

‘They’re a bit worried too, but I don’t want to risk them catching the virus from me.’

While Ms Hackfath would spend a lot of time talking to patients in the past, care has had to adapt. Alongside carrying out regular physical checks, she is monitoring patients for behaviours associated with their mental health, including any increased risks of self-harm.

‘I’m trying to see it as a learning opportunity to gain more experience of dealing with physical health,’ she says. ‘Since I’ve been doing more shifts on this ward, I have become more passionate about mental health nurses understanding the physical side of health too. You have to recognise that someone’s physical health has a knock-on effect on how they feel mentally.’

'Wobble room’ helps staff when they find things difficult 

Tutors have been supportive throughout, she says, providing guidance virtually when she has needed support. The trust has also set up a ‘wobble room’, where staff can take time out when they need it, whether before, during or after a stressful shift.

‘They’ve been really supportive of the staff, making sure we’re looked after and fed,’ says Ms Hackfath. ‘I don’t think you can ever be prepared to deal with a pandemic in the middle of doing a degree, but it’s shown me that when it matters, everyone comes together to work as a team.

‘The most important thing is to keep morale high. I try to think of it as just doing my normal job. I try not to worry about the “what ifs” and take each hour and day as it comes.’

The trust’s service manager for acute, forensic and rehabilitation mental health inpatient services, Rachel Kingman, says: ‘Words can’t say how much we value the incredible work that our teams are doing at this time. The staff are working in unprecedented conditions to help keep our patients as safe as possible. 

‘As our future workforce, nursing students play a huge and vital role in our services and we are immensely grateful for their involvement and courage.’   

Lynne Pearce is a health journalist