Laura Smith is a young mental health nurse working in an NGO who says her skills, knowledge and ability to empathise have been greatly enhanced by the NESP programme.

Laura is just 21 and began studying nursing straight from high school at age 17. She now works at Ashburn Clinic, a 30-bed residential facility in Dunedin. Ashburn’s service users are mostly women with personality disturbances, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addictions or post-traumatic stress syndrome. They may stay for up to 12-18 months depending on the complexity of their mental health problems.

Laura developed a keen interest in mental health through some of the placements she did during her nursing training, one of which was at Ashburn. It’s something she’s really passionate about. She feels she just “gets it”, and that this is where she should be.

The management team at Ashburn encouraged her to do the NESP programme at Otago Polytechnic to become better equipped as a mental health nurse. She’ll complete the training at the end of 2017.  Her course fees were funded under the Skills Matter programme, but Ashburn kept her on the payroll while she studied and while she was away at practical placements.

Challenges and support

For the first six months of her NESP training Laura was on staff as an ‘extra’, but has worked four days a week during the second six months. She admits that it’s been difficult to strike the right balance between working and doing a good job with her studies.

“Things can really start to mount up if you don’t keep on top of them, and sometimes it’s a struggle not seeming to have any downtime. I don’t feel like I can come home from work and just relax because I still have my assignments and everything else.”

But she says Ashburn has been great. She was assigned an experienced nurse as a preceptor, who is very supportive of her in her study and practice. The nursing team has a group supervision meeting every Friday where they talk through current issues and challenges, and where Laura and others can get guidance from more experienced nurses.

Ashburn  takes a team approach to nursing and Laura says her team has been fantastic.

“They regularly check in with me about things that might have happened and help me keep things in perspective and on track. Our group approach means there has to be a lot of communication and they’ve just been really caring in the way they do this.”

Laura also met with a supervisor 10 times per semester as required by the NESP programme so she feels she had a lot of help with her assignments, managing her time or working with challenging situations.

NESP’s benefits to practice    

Laura says what she found great about the NESP programme was all the learning about mental health, addiction and co-existing problems that she didn’t get in her undergraduate studies. 

“I learned about new and modern ideas in these areas, new ways of working with people and bringing in recovery language. It’s really changed my thinking."

“I learned a lot about trauma-informed care which I think is one of the most important things. When you understand how trauma has affected people you can understand why they are behaving in certain ways and work with that in your practice. This is something I would never have been able to do, but having that empathy and understanding is vital because there is still some stigma around people who can be difficult to manage." 

“I also gained knowledge about all the different disorders and why people experience them. I learned about pharmacology, medications and side effects, and that’s really helpful in my work with service users."

“I also think I am more confident in my nursing practice just by having an understanding of what’s actually happening with people. We spent a lot of time on communication skills during the study and on things like values and beliefs, and how to work with people around these.”

Some of the practical workshops Laura found valuable included Safe Practice Effective Communication (SPEC) training which is based around de-escalation and how to safely restrain people when that becomes absolutely necessary. 

She says the two-day workshop on cognitive behavioural therapy was excellent, as was a Rainbow Communities workshop where issues for LGBT service users were discussed. She says a marae visit with an emphasis on culture competence and awareness was also really helpful.

Encouraging other NGO nurses

Laura would encourage anyone interested in mental health nursing to do the NESP programme. 

“You just learn so much about everyday things in your practice – why people are unwell, why empathy and understanding are so important and how to reduce stigma around mental illness."

“But it’s also great that you meet new people and gain new friends. You get to know what different people are doing and how various wards and services work. Importantly, the NESP programme fills in a lot of the gaps around mental health and addiction that are not addressed enough in undergraduate training.”

Laura loves her work at Ashburn. She says she’s learning all the time and that she has no immediate plans to move on. At some point in the future, though, she would love to do community nursing or work with young people experiencing addiction.