The unique contribution of healthcare assistants and their impact on mental health care

Written: July 24, 2019


When I was sectioned in psychiatric hospital, I was placed under constant observation. That meant that a member of staff was watching me every moment of every day. It was usually the healthcare assistants on the ward who were tasked with sitting with me day and night. They are the nursing assistants who support the nurses and psychiatrists.

It is the assistants who I remember most from my hospital admission, because there were so many occasions where their acts of kindness made an extremely difficult experience bearable. It is so hard to have someone’s eyes on you twenty four hours a day. It is not just that it feels invasive and intrusive. It can make you feel trapped, controlled and oppressed.

There are so many examples of their attentive care, for example the healthcare assistant who sat with me through the night and told me that she was going to cook and bring in a meal for me, because she could see that I was struggling to eat the food on the ward. I am sure that she was later told that this was not permitted, but her spontaneous human response to someone in need was so helpful. It was the intent behind the offer which mattered.  

The healthcare assistants didn’t just provide the emotional support which was so important. They also upheld rigorous standards. One of the male patients was showing too much physical attention to a young female patient. I remember feeling particularly concerned about it because the young woman appeared to lack capacity to consent to the kind of physical contact which was taking place. I was relieved to see a healthcare assistant tell the male patient very clearly the consequences, if he continued to act in the same way. Of all the staff on the ward, he seemed to take the lead in ensuring that the young woman would be protected, advising his more senior colleagues that he would involve the police if it continued.  

There’s an argument for saying that it should be qualified nursing staff who carry out these constant observations. In many cases, that may be vital, since we are the patients who may be at high risk of suicide. However, I received empathy, care and kindness from the healthcare assistants and this had an extremely protective impact against suicide.  It was the HCAs who I credit with that admission ultimately feeling supportive.

We are fortunate that our healthcare workforce is made richer and more diverse by the many people from all over the world who come to the UK and work as healthcare assistants or in other medical and psychiatric roles. When my uncle was placed in residential care, a young French healthcare assistant used to read aloud the frequent letters I sent him. This was extremely important to him because we had always had a close bond. The care home was some distance away and the letters kept us in contact.

As well as keeping us connected, it was the start of a strong bond developing with the young HCA, who clearly cared very much about my uncle. The first time I visited, her eyes lit up and she exclaimed “You’re Joy!” I was equally delighted to meet her, because her attentive care was making such a difference.

Sadly she left. When my cousin was going through my uncle’s possessions in his care home room after he died, she found a pile of unopened letters from me. Staff had simply put them in a drawer and he had never seen them. I could not visit because I was caring full-time for my mum by then. It’s painful to contemplate that he may have thought I had stopped writing. 

I hope we can start to celebrate and appreciate much more the many highly professional healthcare assistants who are contributing so much to those of us who become unwell, vulnerable or frail. My thanks and respect to all of you – in particular to the French nurse, to whom I am so grateful. You did more than you will ever know. A simple act, which meant so much.

Joy Hibbins runs the charity Suicide Crisis, which provides Suicide Crisis Centres: http://www.suicidecrisis.co.uk

Twitter: @SuicideCrisis Facebook: www.facebook.com/SuicideCrisisCentre

Sources of support: UK nationwide: The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Gloucestershire, the Suicide Crisis Centre provides face to face support: http://www.suicidecrisis.co.uk  

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