Published on: 22nd August 2022
Ellen Styles, community psychiatric nurse in our Bury early intervention team, has shared her mental health journey to help fight the stigma around mental health and show that everybody can be affected.
From attempting to end her life, to receiving support on a mental health ward, up to where she is now helping others as a valued member of staff, this is Ellen’s story:
“Throughout my adult life I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression, in 2019 a combination of work stresses and my partner leaving me led me to attempt to take my own life. I knew I was struggling with depression, but I honestly thought I was doing ok and could manage. I was convinced that because I’m a mental health nurse I knew how to treat depression and I didn’t need help. I’ve since heard it’s very common for health professionals to lack insight into their own struggles, nobody had any idea about my thoughts right up until I acted on my plans.
“This is one of the most important points in my story: stigma around mental health. In my career I’ve heard conversations and views shared in the nursing office which made me feel afraid people would talk about me the same way if they knew.
“I felt ashamed for struggling, I was scared that I would be viewed as unfit to practice if anyone knew I had mental health problems. To beat that kind of stigma we need to watch the words used around colleagues as well as patients and challenge it where appropriate.
“After attempting suicide, I spent time on an acute mental health ward. It was a traumatic experience that changed my life. Between 2019 and 2021 I focused my energy on personal growth and making sure I never ended up back in hospital again. Part of my recovery was doing my own research, writing about, and sharing my experiences.
“In 2021 I found myself in a similar position again, but what changed was this time I told people what I was going through, and I utilised the resources available to me. When another major life event happened I wasn’t quite so alone and unprepared and I maintained my determination that I would never go back to hospital. I chose a different path supported by the home treatment team.
“During my journey I’ve felt so critical, angry, let down, and resentful towards the NHS. The moments of negligence from jaded, burnt-out staff, and a system too overwhelmed to care. I viewed my treatment as more damaging than helpful with endless assessments, people wanting information from me, wanting to know about my risk, expecting me to engage. It felt like I was meeting the needs of the system, not the system being flexible to meet my needs, it was exhausting.
“I always joked that I was an awkward patient, I lied at every assessment, I refused medication, I pretended to engage just to get out of hospital, I insisted on all my rights in hospital, having my care plan, having an advocate etc, and I wouldn’t let it drop.
“This was my small way of gaining control in my out-of-control world. The sad thing is that because I felt like I was fighting or being awkward asking for these things it just increased my feelings of being a burden and worthless.
“However, while small negative moments impacted me, so did the small gestures of kindness. I’m sure the staff in question have forgotten all about these but they were the first steps on a long road to changing my life, and I will always remember and be grateful. The first time someone asked me questions about me and my life instead of about my risk will always stick with me. Someone else was able to care about me when I couldn’t care about myself, showing me that maybe there was something inside me worth caring about.
“Health professionals are at higher risk of ending their lives, and whilst there are multifaceted reasons for this; I have experienced some myself. For example, I attended suicide prevention training when I was low and the training focused my attention on suicide. Similarly hearing patients talk about suicide as part of my role normalises suicidal thoughts and actions. Before being in my job, I’ve never thought about it before.
“I believe it is important to create a supportive work environment where people can challenge behaviour and speak openly. The moments I feel helped me the most are when I was listened to and given flexibility around my work so I can manage my own mental health with firm but fair boundaries. I recognise if I get behind with my workload its harder for the team to be flexible with me, however being able to take the occasional mental health day has been invaluable. My work gives me a purpose.”
For free, confidential emotional and wellbeing support for all health and care staff who live and work in Greater Manchester, call 03330 095 071, email GM.email@example.com or visit penninecare.nhs.uk/gmrh-covid