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A Day in the Life of a Mental Health Nurse

5 May 2021

Wondering if you’re suited to a career in mental health? Here's a detailed day in the life of a mental health professional.

Marina Zobouian is a graduate of SCU Online's Master of Mental Health Nursing. She is part of an outreach team providing mental health within the community, based in NSW. Marina shares the story of her career shift from nursing to qualified mental health nurse, the ups and downs of the job and a 'typical' day in her working life.

What drew you to a career in mental health?

When I finished high school, I went in to do a Bachelor of Psychology but I didn’t like it because it was so theory-based. At the time, one of my friends' mothers was a nurse and she suggested that I try that. I transferred to nursing and studied it over five years. I did a placement in mental health and then I knew that was what I needed to do.

Having the lived experience within my family, I had already a good understanding, but also had so much more to learn. As a nurse it's a never-ending learning curve, and because mental health is such a big thing that has been neglected in the past, it really makes you feel like you're doing something important.

What would you consider the most rewarding and challenging aspects of the job?

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing people recover in the community and being well. I had a client that was in hospital for years with drug psychosis and is now working part-time, trying to gain their driver's license, all those sorts of things. Seeing positive changes, them feeling happier in themselves and knowing it's because of the work we do, is very rewarding.

I think working in mental health is also one of the most challenging jobs you can do. We always try to deliver recovery-oriented care which is about what the client wants and feels ready for, but sometimes you have to hold people accountable as well. If they miss visits or are unwell and have to be taken to hospital and the situation escalates, it can be very uncomfortable. We're also understaffed so not having the time for your own self-care can ultimately impact your ability to provide care to others.

Why did you choose to study at SCU?

I wanted to do a Master’s degree and looking around at other universities, none of them really catered to what I needed. Most programs expect you to attend classes face to face which is really hard to do when you're already working full time. I found SCU Online, called them up and started the following intake.

Honestly, I find the online courses are better than face to face. They're explained really well with videos and articles and extra content that really helps with what you're trying to learn. I had already done seven years of university between psych and nursing and I've always been a pass-level student but with the support I received at SCU my grades improved a lot. They were also really understanding – if I was working extra shifts and needed an extension, they were very flexible – it really feels like they want you to succeed.

It took me two years to complete the course, and my Master of Mental Health Nursing will help me on the path to become a clinical nurse specialist. It's made me a better nurse and clinician and opened up opportunities for progression and additional responsibility.

An SCU Online student studies at her kitchen table with her laptop.

What does a typical day on the job look like for you?

Though no day is ever really 'typical,' an evening shift as team leader with a Community and Mental Health Centre goes something like this:

1:30 pm: The shift begins, if I'm leading I'll check the handover board from the morning crew and write up a list of home visits. We'll usually have multiple staff on at any given time including a social worker, psychologists, psychiatrist, nurses and allied health workers.

Working with who is on that night, you try to assign the best suited people to each client. Some patients can be given webster packs of medication to administer themselves and others need us to dispense them. It can take a bit of time in the planning and briefing when we're short staffed or casuals are on.

Then we have a thorough handover from the previous shift which can take anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half.

4:00 pm: We pack up our medications and start our early runs which could be anywhere between six and eight visits. Ideally, we would spend between 15-20 minutes with each client, but sometimes it can take longer. During the time you're with each client, you assess their mental state and medical consumption and check whether they need anything else. A big part of the job is in advocating for your patient, not only mental health but social and health issues as well. If needed, we can provide referrals or make recommendations for medical or other services they might need.

We tend to travel in groups of four and some patients (such as those with a history of aggression) call for extra care and caution. If it's unsafe (either due to a patient or a particular neighbourhood) the police assist. During COVID we also wear PPE throughout and are required to report anyone with symptoms for testing.

6:30 pm: Once the early runs are done and assuming everything went smoothly, we stop somewhere for a dinner break.

7:00 pm: Around seven in the evening we start our late visits for clients who are on Clonazepam (anti-convulsive) and sedatives. Sometimes we'll drive up to half an hour to see someone.

8:45-9:00 pm: Towards the end of the shift we would return to the centre, update the diary with anything that might be useful for the next shift and make sure we give a thorough handover to the team covering the night shift.

Of course, I've described a smooth night. On a more difficult evening you might encounter anything from a patient who is refusing their medication or one who is seriously unwell and needs to be hospitalised and that can completely change your schedule.

Marina's tips for anyone embarking on a career in mental health:

Tip 1: Understand Your Clients

The most important piece of advice I could give to someone who wants to work in mental health is to work in an inpatient unit first. Understanding what a patient goes through, what leads them to be in a facility and the medications we administer is extremely important context for work out in the community.

Tip 2: Stay focused

As a mental health clinician, your focus should always be on the recovery of the patient. You're saving lives, oftentimes the work we do keeps people out of hospital or jail. You can see a lot of things in mental health nursing. Sometimes the choices that a patient makes when they are unwell  or witnessing their suffering requires an open mind and a strong stomach. Stay true to your core values and remember what you're here to do.

Tip 3: Prioritise self-care

Self-care is so very important for any field of nursing and health. You give so much of yourself to trying to help others! Make time to relax and exercise and connect with senior clinicians - they're great to talk to.

Ready to make a difference in a mental health career? Study 100% online with a Master of Mental Health Nursing from SCU Online.