Alice worried that her own mental health problems may hinder her career. Thankfully the reality has proved different.
I am a mental health nurse working with young people who have psychosis. I also have lived experience of psychosis. As a result I have, at times, been in the unusual position of being employed by the trust where I have been an inpatient.
“The situation wasn’t only unusual for me but also the professionals who have known me.”
When I started I worried about it, and wondered if it would hold me back. Five years on, I have discovered that on the whole my lived experience has helped rather than hindered me.
The situation wasn’t only unusual for me but also the professionals who have known me – both colleagues in my work team and my care team.
I didn’t start off sharing my own mental health at work. Despite my working environment, I still felt there was a stigma attached to it, reinforced by some reactions from colleagues about “not needing to know” about my mental health or questioning whether working in mental health was “too triggering” for me.
For my care team, the important issue was the balance of where was best for me to be supported in crisis given that I worked for local trusts and at times the same trust, and how could the details of my mental health be protected when the rotating staff and local services could cross with me being around in a professional capacity.
Working in the trust where I was an inpatient and accessing services presented challenging situations. One was working with the consultant psychiatrist who was the clinician responsible for my own care, whilst presenting my own client case at a joint forum. I sat through that forum thinking 'well if my client is admitted to the ward that I was on, what will people say or think if I go to visit'. Another situation occurred when I referred a client to the home treatment team and the professional that I spoke to on the phone was the same person who had visited me in my home when I was overwhelmed with depression and psychosis.
Most difficult was knowing the professionals who worked with me on my own mental health had seen me lose hope in my recovery and told me I was going to hospital. How could they separate those events from the work I do with clients in my job, supporting recovery and encouraging engagement with treatment when, at times, I had not done those things?
Overwhelmingly, the professionals in my care team have been thoughtful and will acknowledge the cross-over and talk it through, but there were a few who looked shocked, tutted or asked to speak to someone else, that drives self-stigma and needs to change.
“Discussions about my own mental health were real assets for me in my role.”
After needing a three-month mental health break from work, I wanted my narrative of mental health with colleagues to change, not just for me but to encourage space for others. A lot of the things I wanted to change were down to me. For example, I would speak to others as if my mental health was in the past and that I didn't need ongoing support or dialogue.
I knew I needed to stop following up sentences with “but I’m ok now”. I was working to engage others in their recovery each day, holding their hope, but not doing that for myself. Through working with my managers, it became clear that discussions about my own mental health, which included the topic of psychosis, were real assets for me in my role. This helped me to see the value I could bring to my professional team and to clients.
Now most of my team know of my lived experience. I attend the trust lived experience network and I get to use my experience to support others as well as consult with the trust on processes and policy for staff with lived experience.
My managers and colleagues have helped me formulate a working-well plan, so they know my early warning signs, how to act, how to talk to me about it and who is in my supporting network.
Becoming a mental health nurse for me wasn’t about my own lived experience but finding an environment where I felt I could make a difference; where I could go to work each day and be passionate about my job. I didn’t predict working with people on the same mental health pathway as I once was. This has had its learning curves. For me it’s imperative to my well-being for my colleagues to know what to notice in me if I’m struggling. Over the past few years, this has helped me seek help when needed, take breaks for my mental health and, most importantly, come back after inpatient stay and continue to work as a dedicated and caring psychiatric nurse.
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