A mental health nurse working on the frontline during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic says it was ‘one of the most challenging times’ in her working life.

Clare Hughes, a 36-year-old mental health nurse at Trafford Primary Care Mental Health and Wellbeing Service, was redeployed to an inpatient ward for two months from March.

She described how difficult it was both for herself, her colleagues, their families and patients.

Clare is a mother and has described the impact her experiences have had on her family

Clare said: “I have worked in inpatient departments before but this time it was so different. It is a very challenging environment anyway as there are some very unwell patients on the ward.

“But what was most difficult now was for those patients with psychosis could not understand why they were being moved around the ward as we waited for swab results, for example.

“It is very scary for patients suffering with various mental conditions as wearing personal protective equipment like masks means it is harder for them to understand the body language of the staff on the ward. And with everyone’s emotions heightened and no visitors allowed, it’s even harder.”

Despite the difficulties, Clare said NHS staff still did amazing work at the hospital to help patients.

Clare Hughes is a mental health nurse in Trafford

In one case, Clare recalls a woman who was suffering with psychosis and was significantly distressed.

She said: “She was really unwell when she came in but the improvement in her in a short space of time was fantastic. We created a treatment plan that saw a big turnaround and that’s why I love doing this job.”

Married mother-of-three Clare says it was not just difficult for patients, it was a huge challenge for staff as well.

She said: “It was one of the most challenging times of my working life. Some of us were faced with a personal choice of going to work on the ward when we have families at home and that real worry of bringing the virus home.

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“But if you know you have the clinical skills to work there, how can you say no? I felt I had an obligation to do it but as long as we followed the guidance and utilised our skills appropriately, it would be alright.”

Clare added there were glimpses of hope amongst the chaos. She says: “There was often low morale on the ward but we were also overwhelmed by the kindness shown in the Trafford community. We would have people and local businesses clubbing together and bringing cup cakes, gift bags, framed
pictures, all sorts.

“Having been on the frontline and having those experiences, it has really inspired me to continue doing this job. It has made me think, ‘if I can do this, I can do anything’. But it has also made me think more about my own physical and mental health.”

Now back working within the mental health and wellbeing service in Urmston, Clare is seeing a steady stream of patient referrals with many linked to coronavirus.

Many of these are taking place over the phone or digitally with people showing anxiety and depression.

She explained: “Most people we see have been impacted by social circumstances, employment, isolation and stress. We have seen a big increase in people using web conferencing software like Zoom but for some this adds another psychological barrier and makes them feel more isolated. So there are pros and cons to that.

“We’ve also witnessed an increase in people with suicidal thoughts as they have had more time to think, and also those with physical health problems who had their treatments put on hold because of the outbreak. I think it is that fear of the unknown.

Staff hand out self test kits at a coronavirus testing centre at the Last Drop Village Hotel in Bolton

“I also think we’ll now see the longer-term mental health effects of COVID-19. This is a pandemic like nothing we have ever experienced before and we need to mold our health and social care services to be capable of reacting to something like this, should it happen again. We’re sure to begin seeing the lasting effect of job losses and changes in social circumstances on mental health.

“We’re also aware that a second wave is possible but we believe we are prepared for that.”

Clare encourages anyone who feels they need help to reach out and talk to somebody. “I know people are staying away from services for fear of catching the virus but our mental health services are still there. We might perform appointments slightly differently but we are still here.”

Bolton has the highest Covid-19 infection rate in the UK yet booking a test is a problem
Bolton has the highest Covid-19 infection rate in the UK yet booking a test is a problem

To access support if you or someone you know is struggling, you can call Greater Manchester Mental Health’s 24/7 helpline on 0800 953 0285, contact NHS 111 via 111.nhs.uk or contact your GP.

You can also call the Samaritans mental health support line 24/7 on 116 123.