I am not one to complain, not many nurses are. We are not supposed to make a fuss. We are the ‘keep calm and carry on nursing’ brigade. But I am outraged. It has been brewing for a month or so now, since the realisation there are over 40,000 nursing vacancies across the country. I head up the mental health and learning disabilities department at London South Bank University. 

I have witnessed demise in the valued contribution mental health and learning disability nurses bring to health and social care services. I am finding it almost impossible to find the right images to showcase and market these two specialist nursing undergraduate courses; both dramatically affected by the changes made to the nursing bursaries and a regulatory move to generalise the nursing curriculum. 

Why is it so difficult to encourage young people into mental health and learning disability nursing? They say millennium babies will change careers five to seven times – why on earth would they be interested in life-long learning associated with nursing expertise? Where are the positive images that promote a mental health or learning disability nurse? What television programmes or latest block buster films are able to capture the essence of life saving interventions delivered subtly between a human being and another who suffers, words and actions that transform people’s lives – delivered by a mindful, skilled, compassionate nurse? How many times have nurses prevented serious incidents across health and social care – as the hidden elements of nursing that no one notices or captures to praise or thank them for saving the NHS thousands of pounds every day. One nursing student said to me once – we are treasures in jars of clay. Only when broken does the real worth begin to show through for others to see what has been there all along. 

There is substantial evidence to show how having a highly qualified nurse on your team can drastically reduce patient mortality rates, improve patient’s wellbeing and decrease the time they need to remain in hospital. There is substantial evidence to show how having a nurse at the helm of a clinical team can dramatically radicalise the service provision, improve the workplace culture of effectiveness and improve overall safety. Yet, today’s government cheer when the public sector pay freeze continues. 

As an avid mental health advocate, (by the way, thank you Prince Harry for showing us all what it is to be human and humane, even as a silver-spoon Royal). I look at the mental health promotion materials and cannot see anywhere how working as a nurse today allows any of us to remain healthy and show any vulnerability. Back in 2006 the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health put out a simple message promoting positive steps for good mental health. Accepting who you are is one of the first steps for good mental health and wellbeing – they advocate being proud of who you are, no matter what race, gender or creed; stating everyone is entitled to respect. 

I blame Florence Nightingale. I know she is not around to provide any counterargument and produce her infamous statistics but I believe she has sanitised more than just the hospital environment. I joke with my students that when I trained in the 1800’s I had to make my own hat from starched linen (the Handmaid’s tale on TV reminded me of this – and the cape). Plus we had to get permission from the house matron when I needed to leave the nurses home provided as part of the training at one of London’s prestigious teaching hospitals. If late back (after 10pm) we had to make a run for it though the creepy underground tunnels of the hospital and take the creaking service lift. Those were the days. We had 30 minutes for a meal break, which took 10 minutes to get over to the canteen – most of which are now closed at night and over the weekends, despite nurses shifts still covering activity for the entire 24/7 period. Eating well, is another recognised requirement for remaining healthy, and mentally alert. 

I have been a nurse for over 30 years now and have met and worked alongside stunning individuals. Some of whom remain close friends. Being a dual qualified adult and mental health nurse has allowed me to travel, work abroad, move between clinical, education and research roles. Perhaps this is how we can hook in our millennials?

Being able to make a difference in people’s lives is a real privilege; by getting alongside them at a time of need, whether family, friends, colleagues, students or clients.

Please, think again about a career in mental health or learning disability nursing. It can change yours and other people’s worlds.