Nina Lakhani: It's not the mentally ill who make caring for them intolerable

NHS mental health services can be fantastically creative, compassionate and healing places

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The 13 years I spent working as a mental health nurse gave me some of the best and worst experiences of my adult life. Being with people who are acutely distressed – a teenage boy hearing voices telling him to jump off a bridge; a young woman cutting her arm because it's the only thing that distracts her from flashbacks of abuse; a schoolteacher awake for four days in a manic phase – requires patience, empathy and buckets of hope.

It may or may not come as a surprise that there are an awful lot of people working in mental health who lack all of these basic qualities. The therapeutic skills you can learn. The humanity I'm not sure you can teach.

When asked to chair one of the Mind evidence sessions earlier this year, I expected the day to be pretty downbeat. It sort of was – but hope came in the form of Fiona Venner, manager of the Leeds Survivor Led Crisis Service, which is run by people with personal experience of mental illness and provides brilliant night-time crisis support, in the process saving the local NHS hundreds of thousands of pounds in A&E visits and hospital admissions every year.

NHS mental health services can also be fantastically creative, compassionate and healing places for individuals and families at rock bottom. In West Lothian, London and Australia I worked alongside people who didn't think twice about spending five hours with a family on a Friday night so their loved one didn't go into hospital. We spent countless nights on-call (the worst time if you're ill, because most services are shut) patiently talking to people contemplating suicide after drinking or smoking too much.

The key factor in all those brilliant teams was good leadership and a collective sense of can-do.

Being with mentally distressed people can be sad, tiring and inspiring, sometimes all at the same time, but it is not they who make the job intolerable. It is the "can't do" attitude of professionals and services around you, crushing hopes and dreams, who in the end made me throw in the towel.

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