Nursing studies

Can a mental health service user also be a good nursing student?

For a nursing career, an understanding of service users’ experiences is actually a positive

For a nursing career, empathy and an understanding of service users’ experiences should actually be seen as a positive

Picture: iStock

My desire to become a nurse was driven entirely by my own experiences of being a mental health service user.

In 2013, I was diagnosed with depression and an anxiety disorder, and last year I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Overcoming the stigma of mental ill health

After receiving excellent nursing care, I spent years wanting to give something back and was excited at the prospect of pursuing a career in nursing.

But the stigma attached to mental health issues made me question whether I could become a nurse with an existing mental health condition – a concern that may also have deterred other potential students from applying for nursing programmes.

‘Being a nursing student and a mental health service user are not mutually exclusive… lived experience of illness is welcomed in nursing and seen as an asset’

I started my nursing degree at Canterbury Christ Church University in September 2018. Although it is challenging at times, training to be a nurse is the best and most rewarding decision I have ever made.

Figures from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service show a 15% rise in the overall number of applicants to study nursing in the UK this year, with 58,550 people applying – maybe this figure would have been even higher if there was greater awareness that having an existing health condition, whether physical or mental, does not have to be a barrier to entering nursing.

Experience of mental illness motivated me to pursue a nursing career

I received a poor education, gained minimal qualifications and felt rejected as a result of my ill health.

But these rejections and traumatic experiences gave me an incredible amount of purpose and enthusiasm, and I was not going to let my mental illness hold me back from my ambition to become a nurse.

Being a nursing student and a mental health service user are not mutually exclusive, and far from being a hindrance, lived experience of illness is welcomed in nursing and seen as an asset.

Diagnosis was overwhelming, but also directed me to support

I only received my diagnosis of PTSD in 2019, at the beginning of my second year, which initially felt slightly overwhelming.

However, I realised that having it confirmed helped me to understand why a diagnosis is important; not just for me, but for anyone in a similar position. I no longer felt confused, and was directed to specific treatments to help me.

This also showed me how fundamental it is to follow evidence-based practice and guidelines in nursing. Overall, receiving this diagnosis during my nursing programme has benefited both my nursing studies and my well-being.

‘My time in hospital fuelled my desire to become a nurse’

Molly King, a second-year mental health nursing student at Canterbury Christ Church University in Kent, writes:

Molly King: ‘After diagnosis, I thought I
would never be able to work again’

‘In 2018, I spent nine months in hospital sectioned under the Mental Health Act, moving between a psychiatric intensive care unit, three acute wards and a rehab ward.

‘During my admission, I was diagnosed with PTSD and emotionally unstable personality disorder. This caused me a great deal of turmoil, with my response to my diagnosis heavily influenced by an awareness of the stigma surrounding mental illness.

‘My time in hospital gave me the greatest gift’

‘I was devastated by the belief that I would never be able to work again due to my illness, but my time in hospital gave me the greatest gift – a passion that fuelled my desire to become a nurse.

‘At times I questioned if my experiences would impede this prospect and whether my dream could ever become a reality, but in September 2019 I started my nursing degree programme.

‘The transition from mental health patient to nursing student has not been without its challenges, primarily when discussing certain topics in lectures.

‘But the university has been incredibly supportive, and the experiences I once believed to be a hindrance have become my biggest assets, enhancing my practice by enabling me to empathise with patients in a unique way and shaping the nurse I hope to become.’

Show potential students that mental illness is no barrier to nursing

My time as nursing student has been incredible, and I get a great deal of satisfaction from working with and supporting mental health service users to get well.

With more than 40,000 nursing vacancies in England alone, and as the NHS continues to cope with the impact of COVID-19, we need nurses now more than ever.

A recruitment drive is currently underway, with a joint NHS England and NHS Improvement campaign encouraging young people who have just received their A-level results to consider nursing as a career.

We all need to work together to try and eradicate the stigma surrounding mental ill health and show potential nursing students that, with the right support, having a mental illness does not prevent you from becoming a nurse.

‘I want to use my experience to help others with a mental illness’

Joanna Ben-Joseph, a newly qualified mental health nurse, writes:

Joanna Ben-Joseph: ‘I feel proud that
I have achieved my goal’

‘The day before I started my application for mental health nursing, I discussed it with my parents, who were concerned about how I would cope with such a demanding career.

‘As I was still under the early intervention in psychosis (EIP) team at the time and on heavy doses of psychiatric medication, I also questioned whether I was strong enough to be a nurse. More importantly, was I in a position to help other people?

Fear of revealing the reality of my illness

‘I have a diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder. Before starting the course, I had to fill in an occupational health form and attend an appointment where I was asked about my level of functioning, current prescribed medication and any adjustments I may need on clinical placements.

‘I was worried about this, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t underplay my experiences and my illness. But on reflection, I can see that this was part of the process to ensure I was adequately supported during my degree.

‘The care I received under the EIP team was incredible. My inspiring care co-ordinator was one of the many reasons I fought to get better, and I now want to help others with a diagnosis of psychosis or bipolar disorder.

‘Initially, I dreaded being recognised or working alongside people who have treated me. It caused me great anxiety, and although this feeling never really goes away, I now feel proud that I have achieved my goal of being a mental health nurse and am able to have open, important and meaningful discussions with patients.’