The end of a wretched 2020 sees the end of my term as Chair of the RCN Mental Health Forum, a position I’ve held formally for four years having been on the committee for a total of six.
In that time there have been some great wins, some losses but more than anything I’ve had the opportunity to work with a brilliant and dedicated bunch of nurses and students.
Being a chairperson puts you in a visible position and gives you the responsibility of representing a diverse group – the profession of mental health nursing has colleagues of every age and ethnicity, geography and social class, neurodiverse, some working where they grew up and others from across the world. The idiosyncracies of each colleague in each setting in each country make it hard for us to succinctly express an image of the profession in the same way that our colleagues in other fields seem able to do.
We sought to address some of that by inventing Mental Health Nurses’ Day (21st Feb every year!) which in 2020 reached over 3million people. That’s an ongoing and organic piece of work.
We’ve also had some absolute howlers – we rushed in to support a change in places of safety but didn’t check the language being put forward, with a debate that sounded to some like we didn’t think people in crisis should be allowed in the emergency department. We learned a lot from that and, as a listening profession, it was a humbling and focussing experience.
I’ve had some great experiences personally as well, being invited to be on the BBC (I did a segment on News 24 then ran downstairs to do a bit for local radio where the producer said “hey, you’re that guy off the telly!” and we had a damn good laugh!). I was invited to Parliament for the launch of the Zero Suicide Alliance and managed to maintain my composure while standing next to Jeremy Hunt…
And the four years as Chair have been interrupted by family concerns as well; not long after taking up the position my son Kip was diagnosed with leukaemia and just as I was coming to the end his illness relapsed. You’d be surprised how many meetings, consultations and reports have been conducted from a velour armchair on a paediatric ward!
As I move on to new projects (especially my podcast RMN Behaving Badly with my colleague Stuart McKenzie) I have seen how hard it is for mental health nurses to achieve change through the traditional channels. Often our work has been poorly understood by professional organisations. Frequently we are asked “why don’t you collaborate with the Learning Disability nurses?” as if they aren’t distinct fields! There remains a huge challenge in developing a unique identity for the Mental Health Nurse and, due to that lack of identity we are suffering disproportionately in training, representation and political clout.
The future for mental health nurses does not lie along the same path as other fields; our role as advocates and clinicians in supporting people through mental illness is as much a political fight as it is a medical or therapeutic one.
The antecedents of mental illness are obvious to us; poor housing, poor education, poor employment, poor wages, poor food, poor opportunities all have a deleterious impact on society long before a diagnosable disorder can be determined. If we are to work on prevention, then these political aspects must be challenged.
So, that’s where I’m heading – not to the heights of management but to return to people’s homes and neighbourhoods to challenge the conditions in which they are forced to live. We have to tackle the inequalities that ruin so many lives in every corner of the country.
We as a profession and our patients as a population will not be served so long as we remain neutral and try to be liked by the architects of suffering. We must call out bad politics and bad policy without hesitation, and to do so requires a change in policy from our professional body.
Thanks for reading, you made it to the end and deserve a lollipop. You won’t get that, but I can promise you more noise and more advocacy in 2021.
All the best.