Mental illness can impact on us all

 Colm Byrne 13 Dec 2017

Christmas is a time when we think about celebrating, prepare our homes for festivities, get together with friends and family and have a general spirit of hope and optimism. 

However, for many thousands of people and families where mental illness is a feature there can be misery, fear, uncertainty, homelessness and a loss of hope. A few weeks ago the suicide of David, a friend of mine who suffered from bi-polar disorder, was a stark reminder to me personally. 

As a kid growing up in Liverpool City Centre in the 1960s and 70s I barely remember seeing anyone sleeping rough or displaying signs of mental ill health on the streets. By the time I was a Registered Mental Health Nurse in the early 1980s I began to see large mental hospitals closing, ex-patients sleeping in railway stations and park benches and a massive gap in community care. As the decades went by Government realised the benefits of funding community care properly which led to more enlightened methods of treatment and rehabilitation but, as many nurses know only too well, we are once again under enormous pressure because of a systematic lack of investment in mental health in-patient beds, mental health community services and the loss of around 3,500 mental health nursing posts in England between 2010-15. Couple this with a growing crisis in social care and the care home sector and we could be regarded as being at the centre of a “perfect storm”, except there is nothing “perfect” about it.  

Research released on 6th December by mental health charity Mind, reveals that one in three patients were discharged from hospital sooner than they should have been, one in five patients was given no notice at all that they were being discharged and 49% said that no thought was given to where they were going to live when discharged from hospital. Many of these patients may well end up on the streets and in the North West there has been a 10% increase in rough sleepers over the last few years. 86% of rough sleepers declare either a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem.  The days and weeks after leaving hospital following a mental health crisis are critical. People are at high risk of suicide in the first week after leaving hospital and if they are unsupported they risk becoming unwell again and ending up back in hospital.

Nurses are not immune from suffering mental ill health and the growing pressure on health and social care services can take its toll on us and our colleagues. Here at the RCN we see nurses suffering from financial problems, stress, depression and the health impacts of prolonged, challenging working environments. It’s not just our colleagues in A & E who are at the “coal face” of winter pressures but nurses on overcrowded and understaffed wards, community nurses trying to keep more and more complex patients at home and mental health and learning disability nurses coping with the emotional challenges of their demanding roles.

You are all heroes to us but please look after yourselves, especially your mental health and wellbeing and remember that the RCN is here to support you. Our excellent colleagues in the Member Support Services Team can help with financial advice, counselling, and other welfare issues. For any nurses (whether they are RCN members or not) who are suffering financial hardship there is the Lamplight Support Service. All these support mechanisms can be contacted via RCN Direct on 0345 7726100 or  

As 2018 draws closer let’s hope that some pressure can be lifted from the broad shoulders of the nursing profession. An inflation-busting pay rise for nurses would be very welcome. So too would be more investment to fill the 44,000 registered nursing vacancies across the UK and to rebuild long neglected parts of our health and social care system such as access to mental health services and proper funding for local authorities to ease pressure on the NHS and Independent sector.

It is a really sad indictment of our society that suicide is the leading cause of death for men aged 15–49 and is the second leading cause of maternal death, after cardiovascular disease. That is one of the reasons why services provided for people and families who are suffering the consequences of mental illness are crucial.

In November this year Simon Stevens, CEO of NHS England promised that, despite the financial constraints on NHS funding, the Government would make a significant investment in mental health services in 2018 and protect its funding. Never has such a promise been more important.

On my Christmas list this year I have only asked Santa for two things: (i) that Simon Stevens keeps his promise and (ii) that my dear friend David rests in peace.

Happy Christmas everyone.

Colm Byrne

Colm Byrne

Colm Byrne

Senior RCN Officer in the North West

Colm is Senior Officer for the RCN covering Merseyside and Cheshire and is a qualified mental health nurse. 

Page last updated - 05/09/2018