I’d been a nurse for just under a year caring for people with HIV when I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. My employer asked me to fill in a form for occupational health as part of a routine assessment which revealed I was depressed. I was referred to a psychologist where I eventually admitted my serious self-harm and suicidal thoughts – I was sectioned while sitting in a room in the emergency psychiatric department with my uniform in my bag for a shift.

For the next eight months I was in a mental health ward. I think my colleagues thought I had cancer as I’d shown no signs of how unwell I actually was and then suddenly, I wasn’t at work anymore. Nursing had been my dream and now it was being taken away from me.

Between 2007 and 2012 I spent around 75% of my time on acute mental health units. I have been sectioned over 20 times and been seriously ill in hospital on a ventilator after attempting to take my own life. I completely lost my mind and couldn’t see a way back. It was scary as a lot of the people I was on the ward with were people who bounced in and out of mental health wards for many years. I couldn’t see my life being anything other than what it was then.

If I'd recovered from cancer, I'd go back to nursing, so why can't we say the same for mental illness?

Eventually, I was treated as an in-patient at a small therapeutic hospital, the Cassel Hospital in London, and I was able to access the psychodynamic therapy I needed and get to the root of why this happened. I understand a lot more about myself, and have found ways of coping with overwhelming emotions, such as mindfulness. This can take many years and is hard. I’ve also had to learn to wait. Before, if I was struggling, I’d want help instantly, but now I can manage those intense emotions for a few days. It’s OK to not feel OK sometimes. I can go for a walk, I can chat to my partner or a friend. You can’t stop emotions, but you can change how you deal with them. I often write down my emotions or how I’m feeling at the end of a shift as I find this helpful in not holding too much in. 

Hannah MacDonald in her nurse's uniform

Hannah MacDonald

I haven't been an in-patient since 2014. I started volunteering with Fine Cell Work, who teach embroidery to prisoners, which I’d initially trained in and found therapeutic. It was difficult to explain what had happened to me. How do you explain your life outside of a mental health unit? By this point I felt OK with never nursing again, but then other people said to me, why not try? If I’d had cancer and recovered, I would be able to go back to nursing, so why can’t we say the same for mental illness? This is a disservice to the NHS and all the other people working in mental health services as to me it’s like saying the treatment doesn’t work, you cannot recover. But you can and I did.

I did my return to nursing course and began my first nursing role in 12 years in a hospice in March 2020 – right at the start of the pandemic. Starting my nursing career again in a pandemic was a struggle, but I couldn’t believe it had happened. I’d been given a second chance.

We need to really think about how we listen to those we care for

As a nurse I feel it’s important I listen to the lived experience of people and apply it to the way we provide and design services. There were many people who helped with my own recovery, but I found the support of people that were going through the same thing to be the most helpful. It’s also better to seek help than leave it like I did. We need to really think about how we listen to those we care for, not just in mental health, but in other services too. We need to be able to facilitate their voices being heard as it is important in every element of nursing care.

More information

Hannah is an RCN expert representative for lived experience and is part of a specialist hub of RCN activists and clinical specialists who represent the RCN on national boards to ensure specific mental health nursing policy, practice and research expertise is appropriately profiled.

The RCN has developed a practice-based learning programme on parity of esteem, which focuses on improving nurses’ awareness and understanding of people’s physical and mental health. Find out more about the work the RCN is doing on parity of esteem.

The RCN has a range of resources, including counselling, to help members who are struggling with their own mental health. See what's available.

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