Shortly after qualifying as a mental health nurse, I undertook a social psychology degree. This made me a rare animal in the early 1990s – a nurse with a degree.
My work as a Community Mental Health Nurse was interspersed with three and a half years as a research nurse in addictions. This taught me about substance use and gave me some research skills. When I returned to a clinical post, I quickly realised how the skills I had developed as a research nurse – collating data for example – enabled me to advocate for increased resources for our small multi-agency team. I was working with people who were homeless with mental illness in that role.
“My new research skills enabled me to advocate for increased resources for our small multi-agency team”
After several years in this challenging and rewarding role, I was seconded to undertake a research project on the education and training needs of community mental health nurses. Presenting my results at a conference put me in touch with other researchers, including people I had cited – an exciting moment in a young researcher’s career.
Towards the end of this very enjoyable year, my manager alerted me to a National Institute of Health Research scheme, offering doctoral fellowships and actively encouraged me to apply. As a relatively poorly paid nurse with a young family, this was the only way I could have entertained the idea of undertaking a PhD. My successful application started me on a long research interest in care planning and co-ordination. It also gave me opportunities to attend research conferences and write research columns in the professional press, which raised my profile.
The PhD led to my first post in London as a research fellow. There I learnt to manage larger research projects, write grant applications and develop a wider research profile. After six years, I secured a Health Foundation postdoctoral research fellowship that included leadership training with the King’s Fund. This led to my first NIHR grant to conduct a pilot RCT on peer support and later, promotion to Professor of Collaborative Mental Health Nursing. Central to my work has been collaboration with mental health service users and carers. After ten years in my first professorial role at City, University of London, I joined King’s College London as Professor of Mental Health Nursing where I later became Co-Director of the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit.
“Those early opportunities and the support of key people transformed my life.”