Learning the mental health experience

A nurse talking to a patient. HEALTH

Sometimes poorly understood and plagued by stereotyping, all too often people with mental health problems don’t find the personalised care they need.

Teaching new generations of nurses that mental health issues must be assessed within the context of a person’s individual circumstances is an important first step in improving outcomes for people facing mental health problems.

In a bid to deliver leading-edge teaching for best practice mental health nursing, UniSA is the first university in the State to appoint a lecturer in lived experience in its School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Dr Mark Loughhead.Dr Mark Loughhead (pictured right) teaches in both the undergraduate and postgraduate mental health courses, working closely with UniSA Chair in Mental Health Nursing, Professor Nicholas Procter to promote the value of lived experience and consumer engagement as key considerations for nurses working in the field.

“Everyone’s lived experience of recovery is valuable,” Dr Loughhead says.

“My main role is to promote this understanding, the various nuances of recovery, and I do so normally in general terms but sometimes I add in examples from my own experience, while also acknowledging to students, the limits of my experience.

“For example, if we are talking about young people and service use, I can talk about my experience of being young, unwell and struggling with the idea of getting formal help. We can talk about the various reasons why so many young people experiencing mental distress still do not access help from services.”

Dr Loughhead says the other focus of his teaching is to explore and promote the importance of the consumer viewpoint.

“I encourage nursing students to always be mindful of consumer experience,” he says.

“In fact all health care professionals can learn a lot about effective practice by considering what the health care experience is like for consumers – there are many well-recognised health care benefits and outcomes from listening and taking on board what works for consumers.”

He says it is important that students really understand mental health as a wide field of practice.

“Our first year nursing students are encouraged to explore strategies for supporting the mental health of people experiencing illness such as cancer, or stroke,” he says.
“Their studies also encourage them to understand that people living with serious mental illness are at risk of developing a range of chronic diseases and need support in identifying risks and managing change.

“The idea is to prepare our next generation of health professionals to have effective ‘mental health literacy’ so that they can contribute to identifying issues with consumers and help promote practices for support and recovery.”

From his own experience of mental distress and as a health worker who has heard from many others with mental health conditions, Dr Loughhead believes big challenges for nurses and other health professionals lie in building caring relationships while juggling multiple role demands.

“The availability of staff to spend time with consumers is constrained by resource limits and this is experienced across the sector, from General Practice to acute care,” he says.

“However, a recovery approach to mental health care is based on partnership and working with different points of view; those of the consumer, their carers and family if they are involved, and other services.

“Professionals need to be able to effectively communicate with all partners. This takes time.

“They also need to be flexible and at times be able to let go of a sense of control so that they can plan care with the input of the different partners.

“Ideas around co-design and co-production are having influence on approaches to care so consumers are becoming increasingly invited to share their experience of effective services and contribute to new designs.

“Another ongoing challenge is community support. As a community, we need to build up social supports and ensure community facilities and programs have an openness and accessibility for people living with distress.

“Many professionals are working within roles set up to support people when they become very unwell.

“But it is vital that keep working on ways to support people to stay well, and connected socially.”

If he could change one thing about how the health system approaches the treatment of people with a mental health problem, Dr Loughhead says it would be to see the wider adoption of the recovery model.

“The recovery approach is holistic, so it encourages people to improve their lives and live well, to contribute to culture and re-establish social identity,” he says.

“It’s not just focused on reducing symptoms. It has core touchstones such as hope, acceptance, re-connection, responsibility, empowerment and partnership.

“This approach helps to create possibilities and pathways for change and it encourages different professional groups to work together sharing knowledge and experience in support of the consumer.”

Dr Loughhead’s position is supported and funded through the leading mental health organisation, Mind Australia, as part of another successful UniSA collaboration.