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Studying Mental Health Nursing in a Pandemic – a Conversation With Student Nurse Grace Forbes

For the second instalment of our #HollrNHSstories series, we introduce to you student nurse Grace Forbes who started studying her degree in Mental Health Nursing at Northumbria University last year when the pandemic had initially emerged.

For those of you who are new to the series, the #HollrNHSstories series is a series of interviews that explore the world of the NHS and celebrate some of the brilliant people helping in the fight against the virus and keeping the vulnerable safe during these uncertain times.

We spoke with Grace about her personal experiences that led to her interest in pursing a career as a mental health nurse, how she stays positive during this period of time and what it’s like to have the Covid-19 vaccination…

We would like to thank Grace once again for taking the time out to speak with us and be a part of the #HollrNHSstories series.

Tell us about your degree, what interested you in mental health nursing and what has your journey been like with MH nursing so far?

So, I’m studying Mental Health Nursing at Northumbria Uni and I’m currently in my first year. So far it has all been online, which has been a new challenge to overcome but we’re in it together, so that’s a good thing.

Before I went to university, I went to Lakes College where I did a course called Nurse Cadets which is a health and social course, but you do NHS placements. You get to do different placements in different areas of the hospital, I did palliative care, which is end of life, endoscopy which was really interesting, medical ward, community rehab and my very last placement was going to be theatre, as a theatre nurse, however, because of Covid that got cancelled.

Before I started my course at Lakes, back in school, all I wanted to do was theatre, I was dead set on going into it. I just thought it would be something I loved, but through these placements I found myself more drawn to people with mental health issues and those who need a bit more support. I found because I was an extra numeri member of staff on these placements that I did have the time to sit down and support patients and take more time with it and I found that I really enjoyed that.

I’ve also had personal experiences that led to my interest in mental health nursing, when I was little, my younger brother got bit on the lip by a dog- he was fine, but because I’d seen it happen, I was petrified, and I developed a massive phobia of dogs. I would run across roads, even in front of cars away from them and not go out of the house. I remember one incident at Workington harbour where this tiny Chihuahua came running at me and I turned and ran and my Dad had to actually stop me from jumping into the empty harbour to get away from this dog. I think that was the turning point when we were like, right, we need to do something for me.

That’s when I got put into CBT which is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and I love dogs now. I think going through that and seeing that it does work for some people also helped me and made me think ‘wow, I want other people to be able to feel how I feel now’.

As well, in the last couple of years at school I had a lot of issues with friend groups. I was very very anxious all the time and I ended up going to the doctor from school’s recommendation. The doctor I had was horrible, I don’t mind saying that because it was really unprofessional and now looking back on it I am disgusted. She talked down at me when I said I was going to college to become a nurse, she said ‘don’t you mean a health care assistant’ and I was like ‘no no a nurse’ and she said ‘well, you’re never going to be a nurse and you’re never going to go to university because you’re going to Lakes College’ and ‘you’re not going to be qualified.’

From that experience, I decided right, no, I am going to qualify, I am going to go to university and I am going to specialise in mental health nursing because I don’t want other people to be treated how you’ve treated me.

I’m so glad I went to Lakes College; they were so supportive of helping us choose our area of nursing as there’s four main areas of nursing which are adult nursing, child nursing, learning disability nursing and mental health and of course, midwifery. The course was really amazing- I got so much experience in an area I really fell in love with.

It really is a combination of both the positive and negative mental health experiences that have led to me studying mental health nursing at Uni today.

How have you found studying during the pandemic? Have you been on a placement and if so, how have you found it?

It’s been interesting, there was some issues for me actually getting into Uni. Northumbria at first tried to put me on a healthcare foundation course because I had gone to college instead of sixth form, I rang them up and explained that I’d done 2 years in healthcare and that I didn’t need a foundation course. They completely agreed with me and switched me to the first year.

I also didn’t get my accommodation until a week before because Northumbria and Newcastle had a massive cyber-attack before I was even there, and it took them a while to recover. So, online learning was a bit of struggle at first.

I’ve been in Uni a handful of times for practical stuff like basic life support, moving and handling. Things you really need to get your certificates for before you go into placements.

With the placements at Uni it is like you’ve been chucked in the deep end- I’m quite lucky I had previous experience with placements at Lakes, because I feel it would be a massive shock at Uni without the previous experience. At the moment, I’m on a care home placement that specialises in dementia and complex needs patients- I’m absolutely loving it.

We also had 2 weeks of an online placement where we talked to service users who come on our Uni streaming tool to share their experience, what they learnt, what they want future practitioners to learn and what will improve the service before we even qualify- That was really interesting, we’ve had a range of people on there who’ve struggle with things like postnatal psychosis, substance abuse, schizophrenia, and more.

In the physical placements you can tell the effect that Covid has had- dementia patients don’t understand what is going on and it’s difficult to explain it to them. Compared to my placements I did at college, you can see the difference and pressure on staff and patients because of the pandemic. You might get taught how to do a blood pressure, but nobody can teach you how to take the blood pressure of someone who is upset, that’s why placements are so important.

Because we’re on placement as dementia specialists one of the ways residents communicate and self sooth is through touch, so all staff are Covid tested weekly, we do give hugs- we can’t deprive them of that touch, care and comfort because they won’t understand why we aren’t giving it. I think the domestics as well are often forgotten about, they do so much. They do stop and chat with the residents – both carers and domestics often put others before themselves.

Some people have communication issues and are hard of hearing and one way that helps them communicate is through finger spelling, so touch is often necessary. But yeah, we strictly follow the protect, prevent, control, PPE and handwashing all the time, my hands are always red raw from the handwashing.

With a lot of patients, we’ve noticed they’re scared of masks as well, and again, with those who have communication issues, they can’t lipread so you literally have to speak in their ear. If a resident is upset and you comfort them, they might try take off the mask- because to them it’s a barrier. You really need to be a calming influence, staying calm in stressful situations is so important to support the residents fully.

Emotional resilience is also so important, but don’t let this put you off a career in MH nursing. If you’re an emotional person, it’s definitely something you build up over time, I do think I am quite a resilient person and I think I’ve built it up through college and through these placements. You learn a lot about yourself as you do it.

I’m so glad I went to Lakes College, they were so supportive. The course was really amazing- I got so much experience in an area I really fell in love with.

What do you find most rewarding about studying mental health nursing?

This has been in the back of my mind all day! It’s just a silly little thing, a resident was quite distressed making and unmaking their bed and I said, ‘come on let’s make it together’ and we did it and they turned to me and said ‘that’s a 10 out of 9 that! It made me think, its nothing big, it’s those little things that keep going through the day- just sitting with patients, having a calming influence, and making a difference and watching them become calmer as you help them that are the most rewarding parts of my days.

We aren’t blocking ourselves off from patients right now- we’re still giving that comfort to residents when they’re upset. I hope people find comfort in knowing we still sit with residents, hold their hands and look after them and help them eat and drink and we do it as safely as possible, getting weekly tests and following guidelines closely.

I had a resident recently who wouldn’t eat or drink but I helped them patiently and they ended up eating a full meal and pudding, it was nearly half an hour after I finished and the carers said I could go because it was past my hours but I said I’d feel a lot happier knowing they’d had a full meal.

I was taught at college to imagine a patient is your family and to think ‘how would you want your family to be treated?’- and it has stuck with me. As well as their physical needs being met, we meet their mental wellbeing and social needs too. I think people sometimes think nurses just do the physical needs and leave them in their chair all day but that isn’t true at all.

We get activities sorted for residents and keep them entertained, we play guessing games and finish the lyric with older songs and they really love it. One of the patients sang their heart out for a full hour and they said after ‘do you know what, that’s made my week that, I really needed that I enjoyed that’. It’s definitely those little things that make it so rewarding.

You let us know that you’ve had your first round of the Covid vaccine (which is awesome!) can you tell us about your experience getting the vaccine?

I got the AstraZeneca Oxford vaccine. I went to hospital for mine and it was all really well organised and socially distance. I got signed in, had my jab, didn’t feel it at all, and then I went into a little eating area for 15 mins just in case I reacted and then I got a sticker (which was amazing!).

The whole process was quick, the day after I had mild flu symptoms and had a sore arm- but sleep and paracetamol got rid of it. I actually had Covid and tested positive on my mum’s birthday around the 17th of September it was really rubbish but I think because I had it as well, I had extra immunity, but I was still going to get the jab, because it’s not just about me and I don’t want to be passing it around.

Do you have any advice for those worried about getting the vaccine?

The news tends to report the anomalies, I feel like they focus on bad vaccine experiences. I just want to reassure people that they would not release the vaccine if they hadn’t done all the tests. All the researchers in the world are working on a Covid vaccine, I know many people fear it because of how quickly it got put out but all the focus in the world is on the vaccine right now.

I think we need to have the vaccine for those who can’t, to protect them. There’s people who aren’t medically fit enough for it and people who can’t leave the house because of Covid, we should be a bit grateful that we can have it. It’s a big thing because I can see the effects first-hand, so I’m more outspoken about getting the vaccine. I can see people’s worry over the vaccine due to all the misinformation circling- I actually had a patient say they didn’t want to be microchipped by the vaccine. Of course, I do respect people’s choices, but it’s important that people make informed decisions and know that a lot of the information out there is exaggerated.

I think it is all about people having enough information to make these decisions for themselves. Even if its negative information they’re seeing- as long as it is correct it is important for people to see a balanced argument when deciding on the vaccine.

Outside of Uni, what do you do to stay positive during this time?

What helps me feel better about me and other people is staying in contact, so messaging, face timing etc. Contact with my friends and family helps me a lot. I’m quite lucky as I have flatmates here at Uni, so we get more interaction. You can’t avoid it with students, we do drink a bit! Having some drinks, putting music on and dancing like an uncle at a wedding is so good. I like to turn little things into big things- so if we’re drinking in the kitchen, we message each other like ‘do you fancy dressing up?’ it helps you feel better about yourself.

We also went on a little walk to the quayside, we took loads of photos and made memories, making small things into big things and doing what we can. Romanticizing your life and feeling good about yourself is a really good way to stay positive.

Self-care is important too and there are mental health services available if you’re struggling. Mind have good resources, Kooth the online counselling service have good stuff available too- if you are struggling, these services are available. I had the misconception going into mental health nursing that no one in this field would struggle, but we do struggle, and we support each other and do what we can through our group chat.

I think it is also important to have something to look forward to. I’ve booked a couple of festivals with my mates for this year, having that end point is good whether we go this year or 5 years from now, It helps a lot.

What are your future goals and plans for the next few years?

I’m very excited to qualify and I’m looking forward to the next couple of years of Uni to broaden my experience in mental health nursing. I don’t get a choice of where my placements are but I’m interested in covering substance abuse, depression, psychosis, PTSD, and young people’s mental health. I’m also quite interested in working as a MH nurse in the RAF.

But the one I’m really interested in is mental health in custody and prison because I think its overlooked sometimes. I’m not gonna lie, I am 4,11, if I say oh ‘I want to work in prison as a mental health nurse’ people might be like ‘are you sure?!’ but I’m a tough little lass!

As MH nursing students we are always fighting the stigma around mental health. People will use phrases like ‘I’m so OCD’ they’re not, they’re just using it as a descriptor and those terms can be bad. We should be careful what we say because it could be a trigger for other people, you never know who is struggling around you, it can stop people from opening up with you. We should always be careful.

If you’re interested in mental health nursing or would like some mental health advice or support, please do not hesitate to contact Grace on her Instagram @gracee.forbes.

Support lines if you are feeling low:

Samaritans (for everyone, 24 hours a day, every day): 116 123

Papyrus (for under 35’s, 10am-10pm, weekends- 2pm-10pm and bank holidays- 2pm-10pm): 0800 068 4141

Childline (young people up to 19, 7:30am-3.30am, weekends- 9am-3:30am): 0800 1111

CALM (For those who identify as male, 5pm to midnight every day): 0800 58 58 58

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