Supporting people during the up’s and down’s of their mental health by Michael Smith
In this series, ACMHN members talk about their passion for mental health nursing and how they have grown professionally. This time, Michael Smith discusses the roundabout way he took to become a mental health nurse, the challenges he’s faced, and the triumph of receiving an award in 2020.
My path to becoming a mental health nurse was not conventional. I completed my nursing undergraduate degree in 1990 after failing nursing theory twice and began working at Long Bay Jail. I worked for a year in the medical surgery ward until I was transferred to the Forensic Psychiatry Ward (caring for the people found not guilty of violent crime due to mental ill health). I was very young and inexperienced, and to say I was overwhelmed was an understatement. My first experience of being a mental health nurse involved working with severe presentations of mental ill health that had resulted in tragic outcomes. During my four years working at Long Bay Jail, I was unsure if I wanted to be a nurse. During this period of doubt, I applied to work with the fire brigade, but I was unsuccessful due to being colour blind.
After deciding to explore and develop my nursing career I worked in inpatient mental health and community mental health. It was during this time I decided to have an adventure and work in London. This led to 3 years working in homeless mental health in central London and 2 years working in an inner-city Emergency Department (the first 24-hour mental health liaison nurses embedded in an emergency department in the United Kingdom) in liaison psychiatry. I returned to Sydney (with a 1-year stopover in Perth, Western Australia working in AOD) and have worked as a Mental Health Clinical Nurse Consultant in a team that provides support to people living with HIV. During this time, I have had the opportunity to work across several health care settings and have experienced an amazing and diverse bunch of people experiencing mental ill health and have had the good fortune to support people to navigate and live through some challenging and tough times. My work with people living with HIV has provided further scope to my practice with amazing tales of resilience and sadness and on occasions, working with end of life. When I began working as a mental health nurse, I never imagined I would have met such a diverse range of people. This includes colleagues within the mental health and in the wider scope of health care providers. I have completed a Master of public Health and a Master of Mental Health Nursing.
Working as a mental health nurse has provided amazing experiences. People I have provided mental health nursing support include serial killers, people experiencing homelessness, experiencing acute distress, people requiring organ transplants bad reactions to drugs and alcohol, self-harm, attempts to end life and sad people.My current position has been working people living with HIV in Sydney for the last 15 years and I this involves working with people experiencing mental and physical health challenges. I get to listen to peoples’ stories and work with them to overcome the significant stigma and trauma they have endured and improve their lives.
Being a mental health nurse also provides significant challenges. I have worked with people at the ‘end of life’ stage. Although I am fortunate to support people at this stage, it can also be challenging. I remember the people I have cared for at end of life vividly and it can be difficult working with the fear and sadness.
My work in metal health gave me the opportunity to join the Public Health Association of Australia. I was a Co-convener for the Mental Health Special Interest Group and was a representative at the National Mental Health Commission and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Roundtable for Intentional Self Harm and Suicide (Human Rights Commission for Children).
My greatest achievement as a nurse was being nominated and awarded the NSW Health - Excellence in Nursing and Midwifery Awards 2020 - Healing Heart Award for Exceptional Care (Nursing/Midwifery). I was nominated by someone I worked with who had experienced significant trauma from childhood. It was an amazing honour and reminded me of the impact I have had as a mental health nurse.
I often reflect on my work and feel fortunate to have found a job that I am good at and is never boring.