ASHLEY PETERSON: BREAKING BARRIERS AS A MENTAL HEALTH NURSE

I’m super excited to be writing on Kayleigh Rose’s blog.  We have a couple of big things in common: a passion for mental health, and mental health nursing as a chosen career.

When I first became a nurse, mental illness was something that happened to other people.  I cared about those people and was passionate about wanting to help them, but I wasn’t one of them.  That changed 2 1/2 years into my nursing career.  Depression slammed into me like a hurricane.  At first I was in denial that this could happen to me, but it quickly became clear that this was definitely depression.  I didn’t reach out for help, though, thinking that because I was a mental health nurse I should be able to handle it myself.  That didn’t work out very well, and it took two suicide attempts before I ended up getting help in the form of an involuntary hospitalisation.

Kayleigh Rose has written before about stigma, something that has a huge impact on people living with mental illness.  At first stigma stopped me from getting help, as I progressed on my mental health journey I decided I was going to be open about my own illness in order to do my part in challenging stigma.  I was pleasantly surprised by how supportive my family, friends, and colleagues were, and also shocked and disgusted at the level of stigma I faced from my employer.

I decided I wanted to break down more barriers in my fight against stigma, specifically the great divide between health professional and patient.  Rather than hop furtively between my roles on both sides, I was going to be a sturdy bridge between the two.  When I was a patient, it was extremely distressing to feel like I had no power or control in my interactions with healthcare providers.  If that’s how I was feeling, it seemed likely that many of my patients felt much the same way in their journey through the health care system.  I wasn’t comfortable with that, and I wanted to do something about it, to “be the change you wish to see in the world”.

For me an important part of challenging that power and control imbalance has been being open with my patients about my own mental illness.  Granted, it’s rather unusual for a health professional to be sharing their own health problems with patients, but when it comes to something as stigmatized as mental illness, putting myself on the same level with my patients can be tremendously powerful.  If a patient is apprehensive about trying a new medication even after being told about the potential risks and benefits, I might share my own experience with that medication.  Or I may share how I’ve come to terms with the prospect of needing to take medication for the rest of my life.  I may normalize the experience of a particular symptom they’re experiencing that I’ve also dealt with, or offer myself as a hopeful example of being able to return to work.  I’ve even shared my history of suicide attempts with a patient who was extremely reluctant to talk to anyone about her own thoughts of suicide, and she responded by opening up and sharing how she was thinking and feeling.

In health care, as in many other fields, often things are done a certain because that’s what’s been done before, and thinking outside the box is not necessarily encouraged.  Rigid power structures perpetuated by those in positions of power can and in many cases should be challenged.  We are all human, and deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, empathy, and compassion.  We need to open our minds rather than close them.

Mental illness can happen to anyone.  It doesn’t discriminate based on who you are, what you know, or what your job is.  I’ve had a hugely positive response from my patients to the attempts I’ve made to bridge that divide between health professional and patient.  This doesn’t surprise me, as there is far less difference between health professional and patient, mentally ill and not mentally ill, than most many people think.  In mental health care, and in society in general, we need to break down barriers rather than build them up.

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BLOG: Mental Health At Home

Twitter: @MH_at_home

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