Reflection · Self care · The StN Project

Dealing with Personal Adversity as a Student Nurse

I hate the term resilience. It’s a word that I think we overuse within nursing – how can we be more resilient? What does that even mean? Does it mean I’m supposed to ignore adversity, to stifle my emotions despite feeling like my world is falling apart, and just get on with it? Is that really healthy? 

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about protecting the mental health of student nurses and RNs. It was reported back in May that in the last seven years, three hundred nurses and student nurses have died by suicide. Many of them were feeling overwhelmed by the career in which they were working. Does this mean that these nurses lacked resilience? Were they weaker, less resilient than those left behind? If those questions make you recoil at the very thought, it absolutely should do.  

In January this year my mum became ill. It came to light that she would need major and high-risk surgery in order to save her life. This was by no means my first rodeo into personal adversity – in fact, I once had a deeply trusted tutor at University tell me that I had learned a long time ago that life is far from fair. However, this was the first time that it was going to make a significant impact upon my studies as a student nurse. I would need to take time out of University to look after my mum and my siblings whilst my mum had treatment. Living four hundred miles away from home meant it was inevitable this would put a spanner in the works in terms of my degree. 

This frustrated me. I remember feeling angry, not at anybody in particular, just at the situation. Studying, and nursing, has always been my distraction and my coping mechanism through everything that life throws at me. A year earlier, I had very almost dropped out of my degree – twice – yet I stayed because I knew that nursing was such a fundamental part of what kept me well and made me who I am.  

This time, I was faced with interrupting my studies – I had no choice. Yes, I was faced with the real possibility of losing my only parent, which was devastating and terrifying in equal measure. But the thought of everything I knew and found comforting within the degree and career that I adored being put on hold or scrapped entirely, that scared me just as much.  

So, what did I do? Quite simply, I asked for help. I’m very lucky to have an amazing personal tutor who went above and beyond when I needed it. It’s quite true that a problem shared is a problem halved – so together, we were able to create a plan for interrupting my degree. And we didn’t plan too far into the future – I was able to focus on one day at a time, concentrate on my mum and my family, and take the time we all needed without worrying about anything else. I was also supported by some incredible friends, both from at home and at University, and by the rest of the StN Project Team.  

As it comes to it, my incredible mum got through her treatment and recovered beautifully. I took a couple of months off of University, and then came back raring to go. In fact, I will now only finish my degree a week later than the rest of my cohort 

Throughout this personal adversity, resilience never came into it. The moments I felt frustrated with myself, wishing I could cope better with the situation were surely knocked on the head by others around me. Coping wasn’t about just getting on with it, ignoring what was going on around me and ploughing ahead. Coping meant asking for help, accepting support, prioritising and knowing when it was time to put my studies to rest. 

As a student nurse, you should never feel ‘less than’, if you’re struggling. You are far from alone but you can get through it, I promise.   

On Thursday this week (20:00 GMT) over on The Student Nurse Project Twitter account (@stnurseproject), myself and fellow team-member Emma will be hosting a Tweetchat focussing on dealing with and overcoming personal adversity as a student nurse. I really hope that you can join us – remember, a problem shared is a problem halved. 

Written by Beth Phillips (@paedsnursebeth on Twitter) , final year Student Children’s Nurse at the University of Surrey

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