It’s finally time to get nosy again – yay! So – a quick explanation – in order to celebrate the extraordinary in ordinary daily life, I’m doing a series of nosy chats with some of the ‘ordinary’ people in my life and finding out that, as suspected, they’re the most fascinating, compelling, interesting and inspiring people.
My first victim was Mia – a fabulous lady who became a single mum aged 19, and now I move on to Kate. Kate and I met doing both of our first ‘proper’ jobs as adults – working in a digital PR company in Bristol. She worked in the music team and I worked in the film team, but we were bonded by our love of food (particularly microwaving popcorn in the office), politics, feminism, and fun. All of the best things, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Here we both are. On the right, I’m the one who looks like she’s been cryogenically frozen for a century and has woken up and seen a camera for the first time. Kate’s the one who looks like she knows what a camera is. And the left she is in the middle. Okay, intro over.
It was both a shock and not a shock when Kate suddenly left the PR world and started training to be a mental health nurse. To go from what is ultimately a pretty ‘cushty’, well paid, career-path job, to a hugely challenging, under-funded, often under-appreciated one, is just the type of thing that make me respect Kate so much, and makes her so bloody interesting. She often chooses to take the path less travelled and openly tries to challenge herself, her opinions and her beliefs by putting herself out of her comfort zone.
I asked her if she’d mind me being all NOSY about the reasons behind her career change, and her thoughts on the current state of mental health services in the UK and she graciously said yes. I am utterly floored and humbled by the results – I thank Kate enormously for her honesty and I hope you enjoy and learn something from it.
*This piece tackles some of the harsh realities of mental health issues, so it could contain triggers for some readers.*
When we started out in our careers together, we both worked in PR – you in music and me in film. Did you enjoy the job?
Yes I did enjoy PR – although I wasn’t very good at it, I was very young and I stumbled into it! I guess I didn’t take it very seriously and on reflection it wasn’t suited to my personality because I couldn’t get into the whole ‘networking’ thing. But it was really fun because I love music.
Yes you never really seemed that committed to the role… I remember you literally stopped turning up to work one day (lol!) – what was it that made you suddenly decide to leave?
Haha! Well I took a lot of sick days when I worked in PR – mainly because I was hungover! You know when you just don’t really have any passion for the job so you just can’t really be bothered? It’s actually really bad now I look back on it because it was such a good opportunity and I had such lovely people working around me, but I was just very immature in terms of what work was and I jumped from uni into this job which was so great but I wasn’t really ready for it – a lot of the time they were paying me to watch Come Dine With Me on the computer on catch up because I was a really lazy worker!
I actually left suddenly though, because my stepfather Chris had cancer and it turned my world upside down. I’d just got into a new relationship too so I decided to move away for both of those reasons …
So what made you choose to pursue a career in mental health nursing?
There’s so many different reasons. A big part of it was how my stepfather’s cancer affected my mum and the world of depression and grief that she was immersed in after he passed away. It was years of real, brutal grief and I watched my mum go through it all – the patterns of highs and lows and rational and irrational, and ultimately how it completely affected her personality and ultimately shaped her. And I suppose a little bit how me and my sister and Chris’s family were as well. I couldn’t make sense of it, it was like being in upside world – you know like the one in Stranger Things – it was like we were literally in the upside down. Trying to deal with that and support my mum was sort of one of the reasons I went into mental health. I had also heard more about schizophrenia through other connections, so this world slowly opened up to me. And I think through my own mental health issues that arose through grief. Ultimately, I think grief was a massive part of my decision – it made me realise you can easily get lost in a world of grief and it has the potential to stay with you forever if you don’t control it.
But it wasn’t just the mental health aspect, it was also the nursing. Watching Chris die (this is very dark I know, but also very real, and human) … watching someone die and how it changes someone physically and their mindset and how you care for someone in that position, was so eye-opening. It opened up mindfulness, the Bhuddist approach and all the different ways you deal with life and death. It was a huge and massive thing – and for me mental health had a way of stabilising that and making me understand it.
And also you got a bursary! You got money to do it! I was getting nearer 30 and I thought ‘Well I can’t afford to do anything else’ so there was the realistic logistics of money that factored in too!
I’ve known you work as a nurse on a mental health ward, in a crisis team and now as a mental health lecturer – which has been the most challenging?
I started off on Female Acute ward in Hackney – which is possibly the the hardest thing I have ever done. But I have also learnt SO much from that – the people I met, the people I worked with, and the people I cared for as a nurse were just amazing. When I look back now I think ‘How did I do that? – I learnt so much about myself and challenged myself and really had to change my middle class, white, outlook on the world. Everything became very real.
The depths of poverty and pure psychosis were just unbelievable – honestly some of these women had come from horrendous backgrounds. But how people survive is incredible and I met some really strong women which was just amazing. It pushed me very hard – there were times I cried and cried and cried and didn’t want to go in. But I made myself – I thought there’s just people in society that are so at the bottom that people do not care about them. For example, if you’re a young black woman, with mental health difficulties, and drugs and alcohol problems, and you’re homeless – society just doesn’t give a shit about you. But I think mental health acute wards – as hard as they are – can offer some real hope.
It also opened up a world of care – the notion of care and how you give care and respect and dignity. All these words I’d heard at uni and thought ‘yeah, yeah fine I know’ – but when you hit the ward you just can’t avoid them. I will never regret doing that – although I think I aged about 20 million years!
I burnt out very quickly from the job though – coupled with London life which I couldn’t afford – so I moved to the crisis team in Bath. Again, I learnt a huge amount there – it consisted of daily assessments, interventions, and the world of personality disorders suddenly opened up and became a huge part of my life. It really tested my assessment skills and my ability to recognise different traits. You are faced with really challenging situations with people threatening to kill themselves and the challenge of how to deal with that on a regular basis. As well as the whole boring world of bed management – there are NO beds! Ever! It became draining knowing I couldn’t offer someone who needed a bed, a bed.
In a way the acute ward is the hardest, because of the risks and the level of aggression you face day to day, but in other ways in the community and crisis team you often feel helpless if you can’t secure someone a bed, so that also feels very hard.
I’m yet to do my lecturing… that’s my next path. I’m sure that will come with lots of new stresses!
What do you think about the state of mental health in the UK?
I think it’s stretched beyond belief – there is not enough money – and people don’t understand the intricacies and the politics. Ultimately it can be a hierarchal nightmare where people don’t understand how nursing should fit in so we are often a dumping ground for so many things. I have struggled with consultants who over-medicate and just send people away without proper care once they’re out of the system – there should be a bigger focus on giving people the tools to survive outside.
In the UK, I think we are lucky with how there is quite a lot of awareness and focus on the importance of mental health. But this fucking stupid Tory government (views are Kate’s own. Which I fully endorse) who seem to think cutting beds and cutting funds is the right way to go are idiots because of the knock-on effects that has on GP services and A&E departments. They’re getting blocked up with mental health issues because there aren’t the proper facilities. So I think there’s a long way to go – there’s so much red tape and there’s OT’s and Nurses and social workers who are all working so hard but are just stuck because of the lack of funds. And the demand is just getting bigger – we are living in an increasingly selfish society and people are lost, people are scared, people are stressed and people are lonely. And that is going to affect your mental health. On the one hand, the UK are great because they ‘get it’ – and on the other we have a shitty government who aren’t prepared to support it in reality.
I think I speak for us all when I say…. PREACH!! Anyway…. If you could change one thing about the mental health system, what would it be?
If I could change one thing – I really think about this a lot because it’s never really one thing as everything has a knock on effect – but if I could change one thing, it would probably be the ‘blame culture’. I think it’s really dangerous and sad. Sadly you can’t save everyone – people are going hurt themselves and you will experience suicide. Ultimately, nurses don’t get paid enough to take on the risk and stress of taking responsibility of that. It has a lot to do with whether you meet someone at the beginning of their mental health journey, the middle or the end. Sometimes within the crisis team there’s blame placed on the last person who pulled together that care plan, but you can only do what you can do – and as long as your work is quality – it’s often not fair to blame on it one person. Especially when you consider that person is often being paid less than 26k a year! The blame culture just ends up destroying people’s confidence, and burning people out.
What’s the hardest situation you’ve ever been in at work?
This is my favourite question… You’d think it would be some really aggressive person, being attacked or something dramatic, but actually, it was just working with some of the other members of staff. I found the politics of wards and ward cultures absolutely fascinating – and the attitude towards me was quite hard sometimes. I know I am a young white woman middle class woman, who went to uni and had opportunities, but I haven’t come from a life of privilege, and I worked hard to get where I am and I’ve experienced my own struggles. Sometimes, I experienced unpleasantness or prejudice towards me just because of those my voice, or my education, which I really struggled with.
There’s an old-school culture of mental health nursing which is wicked and I’ve learnt some amazing stuff – but sometimes there’s a resentment from older nurses to younger nurses where there’s an attitude of ‘ooo you’re over-educated, you’ve come in thinking you can change everything’ – and it’s not like that, and it’s sad that you have to be afraid to be educated in mental health nursing. That really upset me because I think people can get stuck in this old outlook on how you handle situation – and there’s a lot of young student nurses who get stifled because they have to conform to this old school way of thinking because that’s how the wards work. It means there’s a real resistance to change and I think that has to stop – we should be building up young nurses confidence, not destroying it.
Do you look at me and think my job is ridiculous?
No! I think you earn so much money and get to go to film premieres and have a glamorous life … but I know knowing you you work your ass off and you work hard for that money.
However, I have definitely become more cynical working in this world looking at the corporate world – and I think it sometimes makes me angry. You can earn so much money in the corporate environment, and yet I’ve had to restrain people, inject people, get spat at, been kicked and I get paid nothing. And I see so many people work so hard, and for so little. I guess I ultimately have little time for people who moan a lot on high wages. But I didn’t get into the job for the money and we all take different paths, and I have to be mindful that I chose to do this job. Sometimes with my boyfriend when he moans that he’s had a long shift, I feel like saying ‘you don’t even know what a long shift is’ but I have to remember that it’s all relative, as long as people keep perspective and don’t get lost in a warped reality that’s okay.
So no, I don’t think your job is ridiculous, I am just jealous. And I’d like some free tickets. Thank you!
(LOL! I feel I should retort this and say I really don’t earn THAT much or go to that many premieres, but also I know I am lucky and I wish Kate earnt more for doing her job because it’s madness that she doesn’t).
Do you ever regret changing the path of your career?
If you’d asked me two years ago I would have said yes, because I was really struggling. The shifts were killing me, the hours were relentless, the level of risks were overwhelming. And I thought I would love a 9-5 job, to just get paid 30k, enjoy my time, go out, have fun.
Now, after going through the hard, and coming out the other side, no way do I regret it. It has made me so much more confident, so much more self reflective, stronger – maybe a little bit fucked up (laughs) because of the things I’ve seen.. and maybe I am way to cynical and open these days… but it’s grounded me beyond belief. And I come from a strong, heavily female, Irish family and we are pretty grounded anyway – but this has just taken it to the next level. It’s opened my eyes to different cultures, different outlooks, different worlds which were fascinating. And I feel so grateful for being able to do it. So no, I don’t regret it – and these days I can’t think of anything worse than working in music PR! I wouldn’t have met any of these wonderful people or taken this crazy journey! It’s strengthened my personal relationships and friendships and given me so much. I don’t regret it at all….
And can I say one final thing?!
One final thing is Hope. There is always, always, always hope. Even if you are in the darkest place you have ever been, there is hope. I firmly believe that if you can reach out in some way to a mental health service you will get that element of hope. Even if it’s just a quick chat with someone – the people who work in mental health honestly would welcome you and give you support and hope and kindness. Hope and kindness are at the core of it all. And if you’re in your darkest moment, there’s always someone experiencing those dark times too, who is also fucked up, so don’t ever be ashamed because it’s okay. It’s really okay to be mental. I recommend crying once a week… it’s very important! And always remembering that it’s always going to be okaaaay.
Omg can we have a hug please. Thank you, Kate ❤