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Coffee Break with Brendan Quigley

15th July 2021

Take a break and get know Brendan Quigley, Senior practitioner – Student mental health service

Q.1 – What do you do and why do you do it?

I don’t think I really knew what I wanted to do on leaving school and some might say I’ve taken the scenic route into mental health nursing. I was 26 when I returned to education and up until that point I encountered my fair share of challenges and setbacks, which at the time gave my confidence a bit of a battering. I had attended third level education twice and dropped out, I was an apprentice electrician, worked in America for a bit, trained as a computer network engineer, worked in a bar, then as a care assistant in a dementia unit and in the middle of it all, when I was 22 I sustained a pretty bad injury playing sport which seemed to turn my life on its head at the time. Despite my experiences I learned from each of these, it may not have been anything profound but I developed resilience and wasn’t afraid to fail, after all I felt I was getting quite good at it. But when I started my degree and learning about mental health, I discovered that I could relate to it more than I thought, maybe I could empathise with others because I knew what it was like when life wasn’t following the path the others around you seem to be on.

I graduated in 2008 and was offered my first job with the Belfast Trust as a community mental health nurse with the Home Treatment Team. After that I secured a position with the Recovery Community Mental Health Team, working with individuals with severe and enduring mental illness which afforded me the opportunity to manage my own caseload and become more familiar with the service users and their families whom I saw on a more regular basis. From there I moved to the Early Intervention Team then completed my postgraduate diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In January 2021, I secured the position of Senior Practitioner with the pilot Student Mental Health Service.

Q.2 – How do service users benefit from what you do?

The Student Mental Health Service improves the link between local NHS care provision and on-campus support available to Queen’s University and Ulster University students, ensuring that vulnerable students do not slip through gaps in the health system.

These are young adults living away from their family and are still developing in their personalities up to 25 years of age and this is the time that most common and severe mental disorders start to evolve. There are many pressures in the transition to university including: moving away from friends and family, new academic life which is very different from school, needing to be more self-sufficient and self-reliant. This is especially difficult for those students who have a pre-existing mental illness.

There are also groups of students with specific individual needs, which include; postgraduates- many of whom work in relative isolation, international students- where there is often an adjustment to a new culture, and healthcare students- who will be in contact with vulnerable people. In addition to this, students are under pressure to perform academically and meet the requirements of their course as well as their own expectations and their families’ expectations. Missing a number of weeks from studies may result in having to repeat or carry over modules or repeat a year. In addition, trying to continue with a course when not well can exacerbate a student’s illness.

Students who access the Student Mental Health Service will be provided with a mental health assessment, therapeutic interventions and support to enable them to fulfil their academic ambitions. Students who have a pre-existing mental health problems or who may develop a mental health problem whilst at university, will be supported to manage their symptoms to reduce the impact it may have on their university experience.

Q.3 – Tell us about a typical day at work?

I start at 08:30 and check my emails to see if there have been any issues from the previous day, such as a student presenting to out-hours-services which may require follow-up. I use whatever time I may have to catch up on my admin work which includes typing up GP letters or updating my clinical notes. I will usually have initial assessments booked in to my diary in the mornings which can take place, face-to-face or by video or telephone call. Each assessment tends to take approximately 90 minutes to complete. Not every student referred to the service may require the level of support offered by the team, but it is important to acknowledge that the student does still have needs, so it is important to be aware of community and voluntary services which may be suitable for students to be referred on to or link them in with the university’s student wellbeing hubs, depending on the nature of their presenting issues. I then hold my scheduled appointments with students who are already on my caseload to review how they’ve been since our last appointment and explore any issues which may have arisen or continue to have an impact on their mood and mental health and reduce any potential distress they may be experiencing. Before I leave I will write up any notes I can in the time left, check what I have scheduled for the following day and ensure that I am prepared for any early appointments that may await in the morning.

Q.4. – If one of your patients was sitting with you right now what is the best piece of advice you could give them?

A universal piece of advice would be to look after yourself. With regard to mental health I would promote the 5 Steps to Wellbeing. When possible connect with others, they will support and enrich you every day. Keep learning, don’t be afraid to try something new or rediscover something you’ve enjoyed in the past. Be active, regular physical activity is proven to improve mood and reduce anxiety. Take notice of things around you, by practicing mindfulness, take time to be present in the moment use your 5 senses to regard the things you may take for granted by taking a break from your thoughts. Do something for someone else, be that greeting someone with a smile or volunteering to help a friend, it is not only rewarding but connects you with the people.

Q.5. – Tell us about the satisfaction you get from your job?

Knowing that I have played a role for an individual achieving a goal, regardless if that has been enabling someone to complete their PhD or setting foot outside their front door for the first time in two weeks, is extremely rewarding and reinforces the belief in myself that what I do can make a positive difference in someone’s life. There can also be times when a person may feel hopeless and being in this privileged position, whereby I can carry their hope for them until such time as they feel strong enough to take it back can be very satisfying.

Q.6. –Tell us a little about your life outside of work?

Brendan Running

Outside of work, I am first and foremost a husband and father and would always try to spend quality time with my family at the weekends, discovering new places and experiences to create memories. I try to be as active as possible and as a father of two, as any parent will testify, you’re always kept on your toes. Sport was always a part of my youth until I got injured playing rugby and as the saying goes “those who can’t, teach”, so for the past 9 years I’ve coached mini rugby with Belfast Harlequins which has been great from both a social perspective and also an opportunity to give something back and be involved with the sport again. In recent years I have started running, which has really benefited my mental health as much as my general fitness and would train each week with a social club, The Wednesday Night Runners and every now and again I enter organised 5 and 10k events however the only person I’m really competitive with is myself. I’m also attempting to learn to play golf but I can’t say I have natural ability for the game, unless eye rolling, head holding and muttering expletives to myself are included, then I really have started to master it. I don’t get out as much as I used to but when I do I enjoy eating out and Belfast has really come into its own with the quality and variety of restaurants so it’s a welcome treat when we can find a childminder.