Mental health nurse Linda says the profession has come a long way since she started nursing. Watching people recover and regain connections with their lives is still her greatest satisfaction.

My name is Linda and I have studied my postgraduate and my masters, in advanced clinical nursing and mental health, at the University of Melbourne.

I got into nursing because I wanted to help people. I know it may sound like a clich̩, but that was really my motivation РI always wanted to help and had an interest in nursing from right back when I finished school.

I chose to specialise in mental health nursing because, from the beginning, I wanted to help people who were probably the most disadvantaged in the healthcare system and the most stigmatised . At that time, there were still institutions around, but they were starting the process of deinstitutionalising, and moving people out into the community. That in itself was a huge struggle for many. There were people who had been in institutions most of their lives and were then being put out into little sort of sub-communities, and then the wider community. It was still very stigmatised, and many people didn’t want these mental health groups brought into their community.

From the beginning, I wanted to help people who were probably the most disadvantaged in the healthcare system and the most stigmatised.

What I love most about being a nurse is the people I work with. The clients and consumers, and also their families. I really enjoy watching them recover from mental illness. Watching families embrace and support each other, and young people embrace their mental illness and recover, is really what drives me.

From completing postgraduate study, you really appreciate the speciality that is mental health nursing. I have completed my Master of Advanced Clinical Nursing and Mental Health , and I think a key takeaway I got from these courses is that leadership doesn’t have to be management. As a mental health nurse, no matter where you’re working, you can be a change agent through leadership and the way you work day to day. As you study at this level, you learn to work to make change, to notice opportunity to make improvements. You learn to notice the change from when you started in nursing, to the state of mental health nursing now, what’s changed, improved and developed. I think we’re really moving forwards with mental health. We now have many organisations working at making change in different components of mental health – from Beyond Blue to Black Dog, and all the others – they are really embracing mental health in our country. Also, sportspeople and other famous personalities are coming out to talk about mental health and I think it’s really helping to destigmatise it. It’s all helping to make it a reality for people, letting them know that it’s okay to have a mental health issue, and even if you do, you’re ultimately going to be okay. I think we’re moving forward a lot, which is great to see, but there’s still a long way to go.

Furthering my study was also a great opportunity to develop my research skills. Having done so much research as part of study, I now feel more savvy – when I read something, I feel like I can really apply the research to my practice.

Some of my fondest memories in nursing are working with my clients and their families. I love seeing people get real insight into their illness. For example, I once worked with a young fellow who really struggled with what he had been through – he recognised that some of his thinking wasn’t what it should be, but he still didn’t really understand, he still questioned why and what was going on for him. He had been working with another psychologist around his anxiety, and she had given him some information about schizophrenia, which he read. I saw him up late one night and asked how he was doing and he opened up to me. He was close to tears, handed me the piece of paper and said, “Linda, is this really me?” It was a pivotal moment for him, it allowed us to open a dialogue and for me to help him to understand. He’s now doing really well – kicking goals in his life. I’m sure every mental health nurse has stories like this. Seeing consumers make these connections and go on to make recoveries and do well in their lives is really rewarding. I love seeing people return to their social lives, reconnect with their families and their peers. This might not be an area of nursing where you get too many flowers and gifts, but the real reward is seeing somebody recover.

As a mental health nurse, no matter where you’re working, you can be a change agent through leadership and the way you work day to day.

As a mental health care nurse, not every day is the same at all – but that’s one of the things I like about mental health. It's not predictable. I work in community mental health care, which means I do a lot of home visiting. At the moment I’m doing a lot of work with young people, so I will see them at home, with their families. The job involves a lot of assessments – I assess my clients’ mental states, assess their risk to themselves or to others, and also do a lot of work with families and carers, educating around mental illness. I also work with young people to support them in their daily life. I might help them go to appointments or help them get back into school. So, there’s no typical day in mental health nursing – any day can be different from the next.

This area of nursing can definitely be a struggle at times, especially if you are new to it. But I think it’s important to remember that with this job, you’re only in somebody’s life for a short time. Whether you’re in a general ward, surgical, emergency, or you’re in mental health nursing, we do what we need to do to help in the time that we have. We learn to switch off, and that’s where self-care is really important. I think it’s key that we learn to do what works for us in our down time. Ultimately, as a nurse you naturally care about people, so you’re never going to be able to switch off completely, but it’s important to look after yourself.

I love seeing people return to their social lives, reconnect with their families and their peers. This might not be an area of nursing where you get too many flowers and gifts, but the real reward is seeing somebody recover.

Completing my masters is one of my proudest career moments. It's a big undertaking and I procrastinated for about 18 years after first finishing my postgrad at the University of Melbourne, but finally getting my masters completed has been a great achievement.

As I left a lot of time between studying my postgraduate and my masters, I’ve had quite different experiences, despite completing both at the same university. Studying postgrad, I did a lot of classroom-based learning, in tutorials and lectures. This time around, there were far more online components to the course, which was a bit of a learning curve, but after getting used to the adjustment I found it was great. The lecturers are very supportive, and they probably more accessible than what they were years ago. The online aspect means communication can be quicker, and more direct – you no longer need to make an appointment to get answers to your questions. I would encourage any young nurse who is contemplating extending their study in any specialty to explore the University of Melbourne as a postgraduate option, or at masters or PhD level. I certainly enjoyed the experience.

Studying my masters was also a great experience for networking and building connections. As I studied, I met other nurses from different specialist areas – from diabetes to paediatrics, to nurses becoming nurse practitioners. It was great to build a network of people and resources I can now tap into in my job as a nurse.

I’m proud to have finally completed my masters, but if I could talk to my younger self, I would’ve encouraged myself to do it sooner. For young nurses planning on studying right through to masters level, I’d say that after you finish with your postgrad, crack on with it as soon as you can. It’s a real help to explore your options for further study, because what you learn really helps your clinical practice, so you can do a better job every day.

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