Exclusive: Bereaved mother of nursing student says nurses need better mental health care

Mother of student who died by suicide calls for change in workplace attitudes



Mother of student who died by suicide calls for change in workplace attitudes

Liz de Oliveira with Lucy and her brother Alex. Lucy was in her second-year of a nursing degree when she died.

Liz de Oliveira says almost 100 nurses and nursing students have contacted her saying they are afraid to speak about having mental health conditions such as depression.

Ms de Oliveira’s daughter Lucy, a nursing student at Liverpool John Moores University, took her own life in February last year after having depression.

Pressures of placements

In an exclusive interview with Nursing Standard, Lucy’s mother called for universities, the NHS, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and government to work together to help avoid such tragedies. 

Lucy, who would have been 24 this month, was in her second year at university and on course for a first-class honours degree.

‘She was working 12-hour shifts on placements in the NHS and also had a job in a pizza restaurant and as a healthcare assistant in a care home to earn extra money,’ said Ms de Oliveira.

She added: ‘She would get back from the restaurant at 1am and wake up at 5am to go in on a shift. I know the students are trainees but they are still doing a job. There is so much responsibility and the fact they are not being paid a wage while on placement is disgusting.

'If she hadn’t been so tired she might have coped’

‘They should be able to study, work on paid placements and that’s it. We all know that when you are exhausted as Lucy must have been when juggling three jobs, things can seem really hard. If she hadn’t been so tired she may have coped.’

Nursing student bursaries were abolished in England last year and a debate is taking place in the Commons tonight (Wednesday, 9 May) about further government plans to remove postgraduate funding.

‘It is so worrying nurses do not want to speak out – these difficulties do not make them unfit to do their jobs’

Ms de Oliveira is calling for a ‘sea change’ in attitudes towards mental health difficulties among nurses. 

‘We need to move away from this Victorian-era way of thinking about mental health. People who enter a caring profession like nursing may be prone to depression precisely because they do care and they empathise, which is what makes them good at their job,' she said.

Too scared to seek help

‘I think that probably 90% of us, including nurses, may have mental health difficulties at some point. What will the NHS do? Fire nearly all of its nurses?

‘The nurses who have approached me have said they have had depression but are too scared to speak out for fear of losing their jobs or being reprimanded by their bosses and then the professional regulator.

‘They feel they can speak to me but not to each other in the profession.’

Ms de Oliveira, a barrister, has been speaking at universities along with three other mothers who have lost their children to suicide and they have named their group Four Too Many.

Eliminating stigma

She said: ‘It is so worrying that nurses do not want to speak out, why shouldn’t they be able to say to their boss they need a few weeks off because they are going through a bad patch or know that they can access a counsellor or psychologist without any stigma. It does not make them unfit to do their jobs, support can only be a good thing.

‘I am going to receive Lucy’s posthumous degree in November. She would have been a fantastic nurse.

‘I would not want any family to go through what we have been through and I don't want her death to have been in vain. I will do whatever it takes to help others in Lucy’s position because something needs to change.’

A Nursing Standard investigation last year revealed that one in three nursing students who seek help from university support services have anxiety, stress or depression.

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