Newly qualified nurses

Nurse’s podcasts tell true story of life on mental health wards

Podcasts aim to dispel myths about mental illness, remove stigma and give patients a voice

Podcasts aim to dispel myths about mental illness, remove stigma and give patients a voice

Picture shows a scene from the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A nurse is producing podcasts that aim to dispel myths about mental illness, remove stigma and give patients a voice.
A scene from the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Picture: Alamy

Public perceptions of mental healthcare are still based on the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, despite it being produced more than 40 years ago, says newly qualified mental health nurse John-Barry Waldron.

‘It’s a great film but that image persists, and it has an impact for us on the ward,’ he says.

‘If you ever see a psychiatric hospital in a film, patients are always portrayed as dribbling in a corner, wearing a straitjacket.’

When his hospital organised a Halloween party, local DJs were approached to provide the music. ‘We rang eight – and seven turned us down when they found out it was a psychiatric hospital,’ says Mr Waldron.

Picture of nurse John-Barry Waldron, who is producing podcasts that aim to dispel myths about mental illness, remove stigma and give patients a voice.
John-Barry Waldron

‘I don’t blame anyone for having these opinions, because as mental health professionals I think we’ve been a bit slow to show the realities.

‘If people don’t know what it’s like they will fill it in. But these perceptions affect us directly.’

‘We try to make our wards as homely as we can’

Patients’ loved ones can also be adversely affected by the negativity. ‘We have families who are scared to visit,’ says Mr Waldron. ‘They think patients will be in cells, locked up and unable to leave.

‘When they first come in they’re pleasantly surprised, as it’s a lot less clinical than they thought. We try to make our wards as homely as we can.’

To attempt to dispel some of the myths and tackle the stigma, Mr Waldron has created a series of podcasts called On the Ward. Each of the four episodes produced so far runs for about half an hour and features candid interviews with patients and staff.

The podcasts have attracted more than 5,000 listeners, including comedian Russell Brand, who tweeted his approval. A fifth episode is in the pipeline, and will be based on questions from members of the public.

‘People are still wary and scared by schizophrenia, psychosis and bipolar disorder, but the more people know, the less likely they are to stigmatise,’ says Mr Waldron. ‘The whole idea of the project is to give patients their voice. There’s a movement now to talk about anxiety and depression, but there’s much less understanding for those who are in hospital with long-term debilitating mental illness.’

The initial idea came about as part of his degree at Northampton University, when he was asked to do a performance improvement plan for his own workplace, mental healthcare charity St Andrew’s Healthcare in Essex, which provides care for patients with personality disorders or mental health issues in a low secure or locked environment.

‘The patients really wanted to tell their stories and show people who they are’

‘Travelling back and forth to university, I listened to a lot of podcasts,’ says Mr Waldron. ‘While there were many featuring patients who’d been in hospital, I found none with people who were currently there. I wanted to show they weren’t forgotten.

‘There’s a perception that once you’re put into a psychiatric hospital you disappear from society. But these are people who still have lots to give and are living their lives.’

After working as a healthcare assistant in the hospital for more than a decade, he was encouraged to apply to study for his mental health nursing degree under the ASPIRE programme – a partnership between St Andrew’s Healthcare and the University of Northampton.

A logo for a series of podcasts called On the Ward, which challenges myths and taboos around complex mental illness. It is hosted by staff nurse John-Barry Waldron, who works at a mental healthcare charity in Essex, St Andrew’s Healthcare.This enables healthcare assistants to combine their learning and experience by beginning their studies at the second year of the course, supported by an annual salary. ‘It was at the time when the bursary had been cut,’ says Mr Waldron, who qualified in March and is now a senior staff nurse.

‘I have a mortgage and children so there would have been no chance of me doing my nurse training otherwise. I couldn’t have done it without this.’

While his dissertation involved making a plan, rather than carrying it out, he came back to the ward and began talking to others about putting it into practice. ‘Patients were the most on board of everyone,’ he says. ‘I floated the idea at a meeting and they thought it was great. They really wanted to tell their stories and show people who they are.’

Staff were initially more ambivalent, he admits. ‘Nothing had been done like it before, so some were slightly more worried. But my view is that we have to show people what it’s like to live and work here,’ he says.

‘There are challenges on the ward and we have some difficult times, but there are great ones too. It’s far from all darkness.’

The first episode includes an interview with a patient who has been living at the hospital for more than two years. ‘He’s doing well and goes home sometimes,’ says Mr Waldron. ‘But when he meets people who ask where he’s been, he prefers to say in prison, because he gets fewer questions.’

The patient also speaks honestly about the street drug black mamba, a synthetic cannabis substitute that he believes causes serious mental health issues. ‘I didn’t want to sugarcoat things or shy away from them,’ says Mr Waldron. ‘He was brave enough to talk about it, so we should be brave enough to put it out there. And he loved it.’


Lynne Pearce is a health journalist

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