In this special interview for Mental Health Awareness Week, Will shares the story of how his experiences led him towards mental health nursing – and why he values the lessons this journey taught him. Read on to find out what it's like to be a mental health nurse, the vital and rewarding work you can do in the role, and how to get there.
Name: Will Barker
Company: West London Mental Health NHS Trust
Industry: Medicine and healthcare
What is your job? Child and adolescent mental health nurse
How long have you worked here? Since June 2015
University: Buckinghamshire New University (2010-2013)
Degree subject: BSc (Hons) mental heath nursing
- 2009: Recovery and social exclusion – level 6 pre-university course (Bucks New University)
- 2007: NVQ Level 3 – health and social care
- 1997: NVQ – customer service
1. What was your very first job?
I left school at 16 and joined the youth training scheme. I worked as an activity coordinator in a residential nursing home for the elderly in Rotherham, and was responsible for ensuring the residents had fulfilled days. I organised baking activities, music sessions and games such as bingo.
2. What did you want to do when you were at school?
I’d originally thought about working in administration in an office and I applied for that type of role with the youth training scheme. It turned out to be a very happy accident that I was given a role in healthcare as that’s how my journey to becoming a mental health nurse began.
3. How did you find out about the industry?
I enjoyed my time as an activity coordinator and decided I wanted to continue working in healthcare. I became a care assistant in the residential home and then signed up to a nursing agency and began working as a healthcare assistant in a hospital, initially on a surgical ward. I also worked in A&E where there was much more exposure to patients with mental health issues which triggered my interest in this field.
4. How did you get there?
I moved from Rotherham to Blackpool and spent a further four years working as a healthcare assistant (HCA), latterly in A&E which worked closely with the Trust’s onsite mental health unit. I also worked shifts as a support worker in the psychiatric intensive care unit.
An opportunity arose at the West London Mental Health NHS Trust and I moved to London in September 2007. I worked as an HCA for around eight months and then gained a promotion as an activity coordinator in the Trust’s long-stay wards.
My managers were very supportive and encouraged me to complete a recovery and social exclusion course at Buckinghamshire New University in 2009. I was impressed by the teaching I received on the course and started to think about pursuing my education further with a degree in nursing.
I spoke to colleagues and students at work and heard great things about Bucks New University’s nursing degrees and in particular the support networks they put in place to support students during their placements. I successfully applied and started at university in September 2010.
I loved my time at Bucks New University. The course programme really prepared me for life as a qualified mental health nurse. I started my first job confident that I had the practical skills, backed up by the relevant theory, that I needed to make a real difference to people's lives. I'm so pleased I chose Bucks New University and am proud to still be part of the institution, returning regularly as a student mentor.
I graduated in 2013 and returned to West London Mental Health NHS Trust as a staff nurse in an acute admissions ward for men with severe and enduring mental health difficulties. In June 2015 I moved to the child and adolescent mental health service where I now work in a recently formed learning disability service which supports young people on an outpatient basis.
5. What is a typical day like?
I enjoy my job because no day is the same. I manage my own caseloads, conducting new patient assessments, reviewing treatment plans as well as visiting young people at home and in school. A key part of my job is working with a patient’s parents, carers and teachers and other agencies such as social workers. My role is key to linking all elements of a patient’s life together so they can receive the best possible care and support.
6. What’s the best thing about your job?
I love working with young people because it’s all about making a difference to their lives. I enjoy the face-to-face work and supporting the patients alongside their families and carers.?
It was so fortuitous that my career path accidentally changed from administration to nursing. I’ve found the perfect job for me.
7. What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Balancing the clinical work with administration can be a challenge. In an ideal world I’d like to spend all my time with patients but the paperwork is a necessary evil because it ensures that everyone involved in my patients’ lives know exactly what that person needs to best support them.
8. What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
My biggest piece of advice is don’t give up. I didn’t follow the traditional entry route of A-levels before starting university but there’s always a way to pursue your dream.
I think anyone working in mental health services needs to have experience of living life, and by that I don’t mean experience of mental illness. It’s important to have an understanding of others’ life experiences which can be achieved by volunteering your time with charities and other organisations.
Resilience is very important because a lot of the things you deal with each day can be emotionally challenging. It’s important to find an outlet for the stresses of any job and nursing is no different. Making time for yourself outside work is very important.
9. What things do you wish you’d known before starting your career?
I wish the advice I was given at school had highlighted the breadth of what a career in nursing can be. There was, and to a certain extent remains, a stigma around men joining the profession which is something I work hard to challenge. I hope that I’m a role model to others that men have as equal a contribution to make as women.
10. Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I want to carry out some applied research about the mental health of looked-after children in the care system and the best way to intervene and support those young people.
I’m hoping to be promoted to a nurse specialist later this year which will mean I will have moved up two bands in three years.
If Will's story has inspired you, find out more about how you can follow in his footsteps by checking out our guide to how to become a mental health nurse.