Student success for mental health

Zoe Butler created an award-winning mental health awareness project

Newly registered nurse, Zoe, has just started her first job in orthopaedics and trauma care. But before her nursing career began, she was already helping others through her love of creative writing.

Earlier this year, Zoe won the student category in the annual RCNi Nurse Awards for her work developing the Hot Potato project, a DVD-tool used in schools in north west England to help young people talk more openly about mental health issues. 

“It was so bizarre to win the award,” she says. “I really felt proud of my project, but I wasn’t expecting to win at all. It was lovely to come back and share the win with the young people who’d helped create the project as it helped them change their lives,” she adds.

Coping with tragedy

The idea for the project started after a tragedy at the local theatre where Zoe was volunteering. She was helping young people to create and develop theatre performances, but while preparing for a show, one member of the group took her own life. 

“The shock and devastation within the group and local community emphasised to me that young people have a total disconnect with mental health,” says Zoe. “They felt unable to discuss their feelings with both friends and health professionals, and weren’t confident in maintaining their own mental wellbeing. I felt very passionately about making them feel more comfortable talking about mental health and reducing the stigma of discussing depression and anxiety.”

For me it was a lightbulb moment

Around the same time, Zoe was working with a group of young people accessing mental health services. “I was using writing workshops with the group, allowing them to deal with their emotions and depressive thoughts. In comparison to the theatre group, these young people felt extremely misunderstood by their peers and society with regards their mental health issues, while the theatre group wanted to better understand mental health and wellbeing. For me it was a lightbulb moment – one group wanted to share their stories and the other wanted to better understand.”

Challenging stigma

What came about from this was the combination of the groups, to allow all the young people to explore what it means to keep mentally healthy, how to challenge the stigma of mental health, identifying signs of mental illness and how to access help when required. With funding and help from many individuals and organisations, the Hot Potato project began. 

The project is the stories of the young people filmed as separate monologues. “The personal accounts used in the DVD gave them a voice and helped them to develop their understanding of mental health allowing for better confidence in accessing help at the earliest stage,” says Zoe.

The project has been supported by local MP Tim Farron, Cumbria County Council and The Sir John Fisher Foundation, a charitable trust, which enabled the DVD to be sent out to schools all over Cumbria. The DVD is now used within classrooms and also on a one-to-one basis as part of health promotion in schools to get young people talking about mental health. 

“My dream is that the Hot Potato project becomes a national programme used in schools all over the UK and encourages young people to open up and not feel alone when dealing with mental health and wellbeing," adds Zoe.

RCNi Nurse Awards 2018

Have you got a project or have you been involved in something within your workplace that you want to shout about?

Why not enter the Andrew Parker Student Nurse Award, as Zoe did, and be in with a chance of attending the prestigious awards ceremony in London?

This award is for student nurses who can demonstrate that their nursing practice, perceptions or interactions with patients changed as a result of an incident or experience during training.

Nominations for this award are not accepted and students must submit the entry themselves by Friday 9 February 2018.

Words by Sue Embley / Pictures by John Houlihan

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