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Mental Health

On Both Sides of the Desk

Working as a mental health nurse with a mental illness

Ashley Peterson, BSN, RN

Reprinted from "Workplace" issue of Visions Journal, 2014, 9 (3), pp. 7-8

When I first became a nurse and started working on a hospital psychiatric ward, I thought mental illness was something that happened to other people. I still thought that way when I first started getting symptoms of depression seven years ago.

I tried my best to pretend that everything was fine, and didn’t ask for help. I kept working and managed to hide from everybody that something was wrong. Finally, the thread that I was hanging on by snapped, and I ended up on a psych ward as a patient instead of a nurse. I faced a difficult struggle with my illness, including psychosis and suicide attempts. It was almost a year before I felt well and ready to return to work. Unfortunately, when I got back to work at the hospital, I felt like my manager expected me to fail. She had the ward educator double-checking everything I did, and even the smallest mistake or oversight was quickly turned into a big deal.

Luckily, my co-workers were very supportive, and didn’t treat me any differently because of my illness. Some of them even told me about their own experiences with mental illness, which they had been keeping a secret at work.

I know that I’m a better nurse because of my mental illness. I have a better understanding of what my clients are going through, and am less judgmental because of that. It meant a lot to me when health care professionals treated me as a person rather than an illness, and I bring that to my work in both hospital and community settings (I’ve been a community mental health nurse for over four years now). I know how horrible it feels when your right to make choices about treatment is taken away, so I try to make decisions with my clients instead of for them. I also feel optimistic about recovery, knowing that it’s possible.

I’ve chosen to be open with my nursing clients about the fact that I have a mental illness. I’ve gotten very positive responses, and probably my clients trust me more because I’ve trusted them enough to share my experience. Many were surprised because I didn’t look like someone with mental illness, and some appreciated hearing about medications from someone who has actually tried them.

I try to act as living proof that recovery and a successful career are possible. Choosing to tell others about my illness was one of the best decisions I ever made, because it helped me see my illness as a strength that I bring to my work instead of a weakness I should hide.

Two years ago, I got sick again, seemingly out of the blue. At first, I was able to manage working with my clients, but my co-workers saw me withdraw deeper and deeper into myself. It was probably hard for them; they wanted to support me but didn’t know how.

My medications weren’t working very well, and I was hospitalized several times. After the third hospitalization, it appeared that my manager didn’t want me back at work. He didn’t want to accept my psychiatrist’s opinion that I was ready, and tried to insist that I be assessed by a psychiatrist of the employer’s choice. My manager didn’t communicate with me at all through this process, so it was only later that I found out why I wasn’t being allowed back to work. It was a difficult process that left me feeling angry and hurt.

But I would not, and will not, allow anyone to take away my passion for nursing!

I had to go through multiple steps to prove that I was safe to work as a nurse, including two months of paperwork, meetings and the release of my personal medical information to various involved parties. My nursing licence was taken away, because BC law requires hospitals to report nurses hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. To get my licence back, I had to enter into a special contract with the College of Registered Nurses of BC; part of this involves a requirement that my manager has to submit reports every three months on whether I am still safe to practise nursing. This reporting will go on for as long as the college decides to demand it.

After all of that, I am well again, and my illness is well controlled. I’ve been back at work for over six months, which I’m thrilled about. I feel very lucky to be able to help others with mental illness, and am grateful for all the help I’ve gotten along the way. Family, friends, co-workers and my psychiatrist were all important supports for me. Being a nurse is an important part of my identity, and when I’m working I feel more productive and complete.

People with lived experience of mental illness can make a valuable contribution to others. There is a lot we can learn from the challenges we go through when we are sick, and those lessons can be turned into skills that we can apply in other areas of our lives, including work. I can confidently say from experience that people with mental illness really can succeed and thrive in the workplace.

 
About the author

Ashley is a community mental health nurse in Vancouver, and a student in the Master of Psychiatric Nursing program at Brandon University in Manitoba. She also has lived experience of mental illness, and is interested in increasing public awareness of mental health issues

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