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Dan Yates is a year three mental health branch student at Swansea University. When he qualifies he hopes to relocate to the north of England to work in an acute mental health setting initially, with a view to moving across to community nursing in mental health after gaining some experience. Interview by Matt Farrah.
9th June 2012
You’re now in your final year of your nursing degree course. How did you find the first year?
The first year was a real eye-opener! I expected it would be hard work but I hadn't expected it to be quite as full-on as it was. The range of subjects covered was immense. I did enjoy it all but it did require a lot effort to keep up. I am glad it was like that though because it gave me a good idea of what to expect from the rest of the degree and the knowledge-base was vital for further classes in later parts of the course.
Can you explain how the three years are divided in terms of what you're expected to know and do?
Yes, the first year is what is known as the common foundation program or CFP. This means we, as a year group, had most of our lectures together which was difficult sometimes as there were a lot of us across all three branches. As far as expected knowledge was concerned you didn't have to have a lot of experience in nursing. I personally had none, but you were expected to read around subjects the same as any other degree. That first year had forays into all the branches and covered a lot of the stuff that is applicable across the branches too such as sociology and anatomy and physiology. They must have been done well because I can still remember most of it!
The second year was when we all branched off. This meant doing Mental Health full time which was very exciting. The knowledge expectations were similar, we weren't expected to already know everything but did need to keep up our own studies. The depth of knowledge in classes was markedly deeper in the second year and it made me feel the responsibility much more strongly. I think this was important. It was there before but as your knowledge and experience grows so does the sense that you are going into a world where you can really make a difference and I think that it is important to keep that in mind to keep you on your toes and doing the best you can.
The final year is very intense. I have to say I have found it difficult but that is because the material in this year really challenges you to think about things in a different way. Placements in this year feel different too. You are expected to have much more knowledge than when you started and to take more responsibility which is great, you feel like you're getting somewhere but still have the support when you are unsure about things.The teaching blocks are also noticeably shorter in the final year which is good because I personally prefer being on placement but it does mean that the classroom time is more intense again than the second year. There is a lot to fit in and it is important to get through it all!
As a 28 year old you had a few years to gather some life experience before studying mental health nursing. When did you decide you wanted to become a nurse?
I had been thinking for a few years about what I wanted to do. I had been toying with the idea of becoming a nurse but didn't know much about it. So I spoke to some people and found out what the job was really like and that was all positive so I became a bit more enthusiastic about it but not enough to take the leap. Whilst I was doing a previous degree I had become involved with the Students Union Welfare service which ran a volunteer element that acted as a first point of contact for students experiencing any kind of difficulties. I joined that service and really enjoyed it but was unhappy with the way it ran. The next year I took on the role of co-ordinator for that part of the Welfare service and working with the Welfare Officer built a really strong service. This was great but I was always left wondering what happened to people next? So when I started to miss that and the interest in nursing came together it just seemed clear to me that I should go into mental health nursing jobs. So I contacted the university and made my application. From there I've never looked back.
Was it always going to be in mental health?
No, as I say above it was going to be general / adult nursing but I'm glad I took the time to think it out and go into Mental Health. General nurses do a great job but my interest has always been in how minds work so when I found out you could train in Mental Health specifically I didn't want to do anything else.
Does it help, do you think, to work for a few years before studying mental health nursing?
I think it can do. It depends on what you’re working as. I spent four years working in a supermarket which gave me experience in dealing with 'people'. This meant that I developed skills that I can use in nursing. I also gained experience in team working and lower management so I think I got a lot out of it. That said I was not sorry to leave. I was very much looking forward to a new and exciting life! I think any job that gives you the opportunity to work with people from all walks of life will give you some skills that are useful in nursing. Some of these include communication and being non-judgmental. In a supermarket you are part of a business and that means treating customers respectfully and doing things properly. These are things I try to keep up in nursing.
What tips or advice would you give to someone before they take a degree in nursing?
Be ready to work. This degree is certainly not the same as any other university degree. The days are long and the holidays are short, but it is immensely rewarding, exciting and fun. I would tell them to buy the books as they go along too and maybe buy a few before they start the course! The library has most of them but there's nothing like having your own copy. I would also tell them to learn how to live on a budget. That can be difficult but you don't have to live poorly, just carefully. Above all though I'd tell them to be sure they wanted to do it before they started. There are only limited places on these courses and if you aren't prepared to put the work in you're just taking the place of someone who is. It is a life adjustment. Once we qualify we will be nurses and that is much more than just a job title.
You’ve explained to us that you’re hoping to work in an acute setting to begin with. Why is that - what is it about this particular area of mental health that interests you?
For me acute settings are interesting because the service users in them are for the most part people of working age. They are people with potential who are having problems they didn't ask for and are unable to manage alone. These people can still make a difference to society and have a full life. Helping these people through their problems appeals to me because the opportunity is there to help them on their way to achieving the things that many people take for granted. I've heard talk in the past that most people take their physical health for granted, and whilst that may be quite true, at least people do think about it. When it comes to mental health people often forget that it can go wrong. This means that they are extra scared when it does. I want to help these people get on with their lives because they deserve it as much as everyone else.
From what you’ve heard, do you expect to find a mental health job with reasonable ease?
That's a good question! I think that you have to be open minded about it. Everyone has a job that they want. Sometimes that job is not up for grabs so you have to try for something else and maybe work towards the dream from a different angle. If you are prepared to move that also helps I think. Personally I'm planning to relocate after I qualify and where I go will depend on job availability. I do have a dream location and job but I'll just have to see if that's available when I am! Here's hoping...
Eventually you’d like to work in a community nursing job within mental health care. Can you explain that wish?
Yes there are a number of reasons for this. I believe that many people do recover more quickly and with greater effect when they are not in hospital. I think they are more open to intervention and that the families of service users find it easier to cope when their loved ones are at home. So from that point of view I would like to help facilitate that. I also enjoy an element of independence in my working life so being out in the community holds that appeal for me too. It does have some root in reality too. As I see it, the delivery of mental health care is moving ever closer to community treatment across all areas so being enthusiastic about this from the start makes sense because there's a chance I'll be ready for it when it comes. I don't think we'll ever get to the point where there are no hospital wards for mental health but they will be heavily downsized sooner or later.
Would you recommend nursing, and this nursing degree course, to others? Explain what it is you especially like about nursing.
I would recommend to some. But it isn't for everyone. I love it but I know some people who just wouldn't have the patience for it. They aren't bad people. They just have different skills that would be better in other areas. For those who know what they're getting into and are just a bit concerned about taking the plunge I would tell them to go for it.
I had no experience of nursing and very little knowledge and I have managed OK. Nursing gives you a wonderful feeling, even on a bad day. (Although I may not think that way in 20 years time!)
I can't think of many other professions where you can get to know as many different people to the level you do here. And, you get help them. It's the best job ever! I feel pretty much the same about the course. It is difficult and occasionally things go wrong but, at least at my university, the teaching staff are great and always help and support you as far as they can. So even if you do struggle it's not the end of the world and it's worth pushing on because the rewards massively outweigh the hard times.
What I love most about mental health nursing is when we discharge someone from services. It means we have succeeded in giving them what they need to go and live their lives in the best way they can. We make it clear that support is always going to be there if they need it but essentially we have done our job well. It means that that person (and they are all people and not just 'service users') is back on the same ground as the general population which means they have as much chance at happiness as anyone else. I think that's the best gift you can give someone, and you can't do it alone. Nursing is a team effort, and a team success.
Thanks to Dan, and also to Swansea University’s College of Human and Health Sciences for their support.
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