"I have a small idea of what they're going through..." - A guest blog by Heather Benstead

My mental health story started probably in my early teens, but I first came into contact with services when I was 23 and was given a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder (rapid cycling). I was referred over to a CPN; but because of the high prevalence of mental health problems in my local area and the lack of support in the community I waited 18 weeks to see someone, by that time I felt like a walking Wikipedia on bipolar and the CPN I got just seemed to have no clue on what it was like to have this major new thing start to invade your life in your early 20s so I ended up with no support. Although, sometimes I think I should be grateful for the delay as it led me to where I am now…a third year mental health nursing student! If anyone had told me back then this is where I’d be 4 years after diagnosis I’d have laughed (probably manically) in their faces.
My ‘recovery’ journey has been a bit of a rollercoaster, much the same as anyone with a diagnosis – but I want to tell everyone that there’s hope and your diagnosis doesn’t define you! When I was first diagnosed I lost my job with a national government organisation, but I never really enjoyed it anyways; I always wanted to help people in some way. That’s when I chose to go back into education and made it through an access course with 6 distinctions (with support from a good friend and a good college) and then I started my degree. I’ve had to go through more rigorous occupational health checks than some other students on my course to make sure I’m well enough and fit to practice on the wards and in the community. I also had checks to see what support I’d need from university for the academic side of things. This usually involves a ‘chat’ (their word not mine!) with a general trained nurse and I always get raised eyebrows when they find out I’m mental health branch. It tends to start out with questions like “Ooh do you think that’s a good idea?” or “Are you sure you want to work?” but after talking for a while they see I’m probably better for the job than they’d be and I get clearance. A couple of times when I’ve been on placement my mentors have found out about my diagnosis because I’ve had to take time off for follow-ups with my consultant (uni leave it up to you whether you discuss MH problems with your placement unless they think it’ll have an effect) and I’ve never encountered any negativity from them in my choice of career, in fact they’ve said it can only be a positive thing.
I’ve worked with people with a huge range of diagnoses over my placements, including people with bipolar, and I’ve never had any problems. Every patient I’ve worked closely with has thanked me or given me a card to express the impact I’ve had on their journey. There is always clinical supervision available to me if I find something distressing, but I think the level of empathy I can show because I have a small idea of what they’re going through has a positive impact on the way I nurse.
I think it’s important for everyone to remember that having a mental health diagnosis is not the end, even though it can seem that your world is crashing down around you. There’s always going to be good days and bad days; but guess what – that’s normal! Everyone’s journey through the recovery process is different; I’m not saying mine has been easy, but the support I’ve received from people has made it a little less rocky than it might have been. Just remember that YOU define who you are, not a label that someone sticks on your notes. Keep your head held high, your chest stuck out, walk tall and be proud that you’re you. You’ve made it this far through whatever life has thrown at you and you have everything inside you that you need to keep on going.

To contact Heather on anything in this post please use her e'mail address: heatherb86@hotmail.co.uk
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