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Profile: Mental health nurse

Profile: Mental health nurse

“When you get to know people – even the most unwell people, you realise that their needs are very human, because they will say something like ‘I would like somebody to love me, because I feel so lonely like this’,” says Glen Sturdee a psychiatric nurse with more than 25 years' experience in the field of mental health nursing.

Sturdee originally began nursing in Australia. While he was at school in year 12 he took on work experience at his local psychiatric hospital – Bailey Henderson Hospital based in Toowoomba City, south east Queensland. 

This led to him training as a psychiatric nurse (known as a mental health nurse in the UK) at the same hospital. Sturdee says that the experience at the time was “quite shocking”. The focus nowadays in mental health care, as the Australia born nurse explains, is on “rehabilitating people in the community and minimising institutional stays… and rather than trying to eliminate symptoms altogether, the emphasis [now] is on getting people to cope better with their symptoms, to be better socialised and supported and to have relationships with their family.”

When Sturdee first began his nurse training in 1986 things couldn’t have been more different. “The people who had mental illnesses would go in [to institutions] for years and years and not always come out.”

But now, he is happy that psychiatric nursing has turned a corner. “Fortunately things have changed and mental health care has significantly progressed – people are being treated a lot differently.”

After his graduation in 1989, Sturdee began a role as a registered nurse at Princess Alexander Hospital in Brisbane, Australia working in acute mental health “away from the big institution [and] into a smaller psychiatric annex (a specialist clinic attached to a general hospital)”. Speaking of this time Sturdee explains that it was “highly intensive” with him seeing a variety of patients struggling with severe mental health problems. “Those [patients] experiencing drug induced psychosis, bipolar affective disorder or schizophrenia and those who were acutely suicidal.”

In 1991 Sturdee then moved to Southport Hospital, Australia to work at the Gold Coast Psychiatric Unit as a clinical nurse (charge nurse) in an equally demanding unit and worked there until he began to travel in 1997.

When travelling, his first stop was in the UK at Heatherwood Hospital, Berkshire working as an agency nurse in an acute mental health ward until he left for a role in Saudi Arabia in 1998. “It was my first experience in the middle east… I worked in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia in the military hospital [King Khaled Riyadh Al-Karj Hospital Program], it was a new experience looking after soldiers with mental health disorders,” he says. Sturdee started out as a staff nurse but ended up as the co-ordinator of the Psychiatric Outpatient Department at the same hospital.

While in Saudi Arabia, Sturdee discovered that although the types of disorders and the presentations were “quite the same”, the perceptions of mental health were worlds apart.

Some people thought that evil spirits were the real cause of mental illness. “Families sometimes believed they were possessed, and were having a religious man come in and try to cast out the demons.” Eventually Sturdee left in 2000 and began working back in Australia at St Vincent’s Hospital, which at the time was a new private psychiatric hospital, where he worked as a clinical nurse in an acute mental health ward.

But this didn’t tie him down for a long time, in 2001
Sturdee returned to the UK to work at The Dene hospital in Goddards Green, West Sussex. While working there, Sturdee was an agency staff nurse where the speciality of the medium-secure hospital was “for women with diagnosed personality disorders”, those patients experiencing problems such as self-harm and aggression. But Sturdee recalls how the environment had stringent security measures in place.

“They were part of the criminal justice system so the Home Office would determine their leave and set their discharge dates.

"There would be cutlery counts after meals, airlock entry points (which is when one door locks in order for another to open), there was a mechanism for a “lock down” – so if a piece of cutlery went missing you could automatically lock off all rooms and systematically conduct a search. Staff were trained to do physical searches including control and restraint techniques.”

Sturdee stayed working at The Dene hospital on and off for six years. He began as an agency nurse but built his way up to acting team leader and was later promoted to acting ward manager.

In 2007, Sturdee then started working for the Ministry of Defence (MOD) as a community psychiatric nurse where he conducted assessments as well as assisting military personnel with their “transition from military to civilian life [and also helped soldiers with] post-traumatic stress disorder or related emotional conditions”.

For much of this time he was based in a town called Wegberg Rheindahlen as “there were a lot of large British bases across Germany”.

In 2008, Sturdee's role changed, he became a staff counsellor/welfare assistant for The United Nations, which was his first non-nursing position. The role was working for UNAMI – United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq.

“They couldn’t situate the head office in Iraq for security reasons, so it was divided into two duty stations, one part was in Jordan and the other part was in Kuwait. Over two years I was based in different places throughout Iraq,” he recalls.

Reflecting on his role, Sturdee says he worked “primarily in Erbil in Kurdistan in northern Iraq and also in Baghdad, and my job was to assist United Nations staff with emotional disruption as a result of trauma, but also quality of life counselling, [for example] people who were separated from their family, going through a relationship breakup, missing their children and others who were drinking too much alcohol.” While working in the United Nations, after staying in touch for many years with his fiancée, Sturdee married Analiza in 2008 who is originally from the Philippines. But while he was working in Iraq they had to stay based in separate places.

“Analiza couldn’t come into Iraq, so she was always waiting in Kuwait or Jordan for me to come back between missions.”

However, when their son Caleb was born in 2009, “she put her foot down and said the adventure had to stop”.

So Sturdee returned to the Dene Hospital in West Sussex and was appointed to multi-disciplinary team manager/recovery service manger where he oversaw the nurses, psychologists and social workers. While working here he, Analiza and Caleb could all live a simpler life in the same place. But Sturdee still couldn’t keep his feet still. From the end of 2009 to 2012 he and his family moved to Jersey in the Channel Islands where he began a role as senior mental health nurse at Orchard House, an acute psychiatric unit in a hospital named St Saviours.

His role involved “working with people with a fairly broad variety of acute mental health issues, in a very well-resourced service, [it was a] beautiful place with a nice lifestyle”. During this time, his family welcomed their daughter Juliana, in 2010.

In January 2012, Sturdee jumped into another adventure, but this time it took him to the Falkland Islands, where he worked as a community psychiatric nurse.

“The whole psychiatric service included two community psychiatric nurses, they were supported by GPs who were run off their feet doing general medical work,” he says.

Additionally, there was Doctor Tim McInerny; a psychiatrist who would visit the islands once every six months and he was based in The Maudsley Hospital in London. Speaking of McInerny, Sturdee says: “He was a pretty remarkable person, you could get in contact with him any time you wanted. He was coming and going to the Falklands for about 11 years – it was his pet project and it was dear to him and together with senior community psychiatric nurse Karen Rimicans they kept the mental health of the islands stable.”

Reflecting on his work in the Falklands Sturdee says: “From a psychiatric perspective we didn’t say no to many problems... [there were] a great deal of referrals related to alcohol and depression.” One of his roles involved visiting the prison to assess inmates with possible mental health issues. “Those convicted of a crime and sentenced to a jail term needed to be assessed, so the psychiatric nurse would go to the prison within the first 48 hours and do a mental health assessment to understand whether or not there were any safety risks or they needed support.”

Providing alcohol information also linked Sturdee to the court system.  

“The court system down there [in the Falklands] is ruled by the senior magistrate, so if somebody needed alcohol rehabilitation they would, as part of their probation requirement, come and see us and then we would give them information about alcohol use and the dangers, or sometimes anger management assistance.”

On top of the alcohol education programme, Sturdee also accessed the skills he had developed while working with soldiers in his years at the United Nations.

“There is a big military base [in the Falklands] named Mount Pleasant with nearly 2,000 MOD soldiers and civilians.” Mount Pleasant didn’t have its own mental health service, therefore Sturdee would frequently receive referrals from the military base.

Medication management was another aspect Sturdee was involved in while in the Falklands.

“They had a medical ward there but it wasn’t a psychiatric ward, and because of the high incidence of alcohol abuse on the island, people needed to be detoxed.”

Therefore, Sturdee's role extended to working in the community as he says patients sometimes wanted to be detoxified in their own home, so he would collect their medication from the hospital pharmacy and bring it to them. But this involved precautions, “I couldn’t leave the medication with a patient in their home in case they relapsed and mixed it with alcohol, [therefore] I would visit them every day to check on their withdrawal symptoms and administer their medication”.

This often involved “recruiting members of [a patient's families] to offer support” as well as educating the patients and their families on alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

“Occasionally, we got to fly around the islands in a light aircraft visiting people out in, what is called ‘camp’ to the locals, which was people living in remote farms. It was not unheard of to stay in the houses of our patients, [due to them being so isolated]. And at the same time I could assess their lifestyle and offer them emotional support strategies. This was a really enjoyable time for me and didn’t feel like work at all.”

Although Sturdee only originally went to the Falklands for a one year contract, the lifestyle suited his family which kept him in the area for three years, and even though he says going to the Falklands is “a bit like going back in time, in the nicest way”, he feels it had a positive outcome. 

“We didn’t lock our front door or our car for the three years we were there. The local kids aren’t looking at wireless devices the whole time, they are going outside and doing things. There’s a very strong sense of community, its very patriotic.

You can [also] get very close to the wildlife there, as the sea animals like penguins and seals often come up and perch onto the seashore. Instead of the kids watching TV all weekend we would go out and see nature.”

But in January 2015, Sturdee decided it was time for another change.  “Just after three years, we needed a new adventure, and for the kids to see another part of the world.”

Therefore, the father of two applied to a role in Abu Dhabi, but when he found out about a role in Qatar he was intrigued. Following this his family vouched for a new change in Qatar, where Sturdee is now working as a clinical nurse specialist setting up an addictions treatment service.

Although Qatar is miles from Australia, where Sturdee is originally from, he sees the country as a central place for his family.

“My wife’s family are living in the Philippines but I am originally from Australia, and we have many friends and relatives in England, so the Middle East actually seemed quite central.”

But the main reasons he was attracted to the country is the government’s focus on mental health.

“The Qatar government is very generously investing in its addictions and substance treatment services and they are building state-of-the-art infrastructure, plus they want to reduce the stigma of addiction, educate people, provide facilities and have specialist staff available – these are all goals of the government.”

As part of the government's project, spearheaded by renowned psychiatrist Professor Jeffrey Wilkins from The University of California, Los Angeles, Sturdee will work to develop the national service and infrastructure.

“The first phase is looking at what will be called ‘guest-client’ treatment facilities where concepts like integrative wellness and hospitality are part of the model. What I am doing is assisting to write the model of service delivery.”

Part of the implementation is to consolidate existing services, which requires current services to be upgraded and integrated.

“We are doing training, writing models of care, writing policies and procedures, as well as assisting different services to plan mergers and that is just the starting point – it’s an exciting project.”

Sturdee feels his UK Nursing and Midwifery Council registration is part of why he has been able to travel so easily because it “is a very valued license; any commonwealth country will recognise the British qualification including all of the Channel Islands. So once you are plugged into that you realise there are all of these opportunities [available]”.

And travelling for Sturdee is what he feels keeps him stimulated.

“When you travel you are always alive. You are displaced, and therefore are forced to be awake and to adjust. You are right on the edge of your comfort zone, [therefore] this is a way of staying young because your brain is switched on to adapting in a new place.”

Although, the father of two does say that from his experience with military families he knows “quite often their children have struggles because every time they make friends they get ripped away and run the risk of getting rejected in the new place. It’s possible that they withdraw into themselves. That is why… we will try and keep our kids here [in Qatar] for as long as possible so they can make sustained friendships”.

Having two children himself, he says the main thing he finds difficult to deal with in his job is when he sees children being affected.

“The thing I find hardest is very dysfunctional families where the children are suffering, and you know that in some cases the children are going to be returned to families that love them but still hurt them.”

In the future Sturdee feels he and his family will return to Australia. “I guess I will always be attracted to another adventure. I feel in some ways I am floored, its hard for me to settle down and get into a normal routine, but what I am going to be doing in the future has to be compatible for my family.

"I am a package deal now, I don’t make decisions on my own."

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