Career advice

The power of art

A family tragedy changed the course of mental health nursing student Mark Collins' career

Picture credit: Harrison Photography

When mental health nursing student Mark Collins experienced a family tragedy, it changed the course of his career.

Mr Collins was studying graphic design when he learned that his cousin had committed suicide. Having always aspired to be a nurse, it prompted him to apply to study mental health nursing at the University of Ulster.

‘I wanted something positive to come out of such a sad situation,’ he says. ‘I realised that there is no health without mental health, and if I can save the life of just one person who is suicidal, I have achieved my goal.’

Mr Collins began his course in September 2012 and will graduate later this year. During his studies, he has worked extensively with older people; his first clinical placement was on a long-stay mental health ward for men aged 65 and over, he has completed a community placement for older adults with enduring mental illness and his dissertation focused on older people in the community diagnosed with depression.

But it was a placement on an acute ward for people aged 65 and over with functioning mental illness that cemented his passion for working with older people.

‘I cared for service users from admission, when they were at their lowest point, to when their mental health was restored and they were ready for discharge,’ says Mr Collins.

‘What I enjoy most about working with older people is getting to know them. It is inspirational hearing their life stories and some of the challenges they have overcome. Older people are fountains of knowledge and we can learn so much from them.’

During this placement Mr Collins noticed that there were no group activities for patients on the ward. Drawing on his artistic background, he decided to start an art therapy group, with the aim of improving service users’ social skills and self-esteem.

Using materials costing just £10, he ran an art therapy session every shift he was on during the six-week placement. The finished product was The Tree of Regrowth and Recovery – a tree painted on the wall surrounded by the service users’ framed artwork.

‘The patients told me that what made them happy was being around wildlife and nature, so we used this as the project theme,’ says Mr Collins.

‘They engaged with the activity and connected with each other. Having a goal to work towards gave them a sense of achievement, and the sessions enabled me to observe them and assess their progress.’

This innovative project saw Mr Collins become the worthy recipient of the Andrew Parker Student Nurse Award at this year’s Nursing Standard Awards.

‘It was a privilege to be shortlisted, but to win the award for an activity I feel so passionate about is overwhelming,’ he says. ‘It is my proudest achievement to date.’

When he is not working, Mr Collins enjoys spending time with his partner, friends and family, and indulging his passion for arts and crafts. But he admits he can find it difficult to switch off when not on duty.

‘I often think about the service users, especially if someone has had a bad day,’ he says. ‘But this just motivates me to think of more innovative ways to help them engage in therapeutic activity.’

Mr Collins says he would like to see more services available for older people with mental health problems, especially addiction services.

‘Once older people retire, their alcohol intake often increases, but addiction services are limited for them,’ he says. ‘Some people think that depression is part of the ageing process, but this is just not the case, and this also needs to be addressed.’

Asked where he would like to be in five years’ time, Mr Collins says studying for a PhD focusing on art therapy.

‘One of the service users in the art therapy group told me she had not painted since she left school, but she found it really enjoyable and relaxing.

‘Addressing the mental health needs of older people through therapeutic activity is vital in ensuring they have fully enriched lives.’

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