Congratulations to Anita Bignell, who scooped Mental Health Nurse of the Year at the British Journal of Nursing Awards on 25 March. Here Anita, who works as a Lead Simulation Nurse Tutor at Maudsley Learning, talks about her career and why she became a mental health nurse.

Congratulations! How does it feel to have won this award?
I feel really excited and proud. I didn’t know I’d been nominated - it was a really nice surprise!

How long have you worked at the Trust and what is your current role?
I started at the Trust as a healthcare assistant at Bethlem Hospital 20 years ago and trained to be a nurse here. I’ve been at the Trust ever since - working in a variety of services including a specialist self-harm unit, a triage ward, an assessment and liaison team, and helping to set up the OPTIMA service for people with bipolar disorder. For the last three years I have been working at Maudsley Learning, developing a range of mental health training courses.

Could you tell me a bit about your current role?
I work in mental health simulation - it’s immersive learning for the clinicians and other staff we train, so it feels similar to real-life situations. We use fully trained actors to play the role of mental health patients in different scenarios that we create. A lot of my work is with colleagues from acute trusts to help improve the experience of mental health patients at those trusts.

We are collaborating with King’s College London on projects including virtual reality training and on the King’s Health Partners Mind & Body Programme to join up mental and physical healthcare. I am also involved in projects to help reduce restrictive practice on inpatient wards, for example Seni’s Story. I have also been implementing clinical debriefing across the Trust.

What do you most enjoy about your role and working at the Trust?
The most satisfying thing for me is teaching on the simulation days. When you see people really thinking, reflecting and having light bulb moments. I also love the team at Maudsley Learning. They are so passionate about improving mental healthcare and patient experience and have really supported me in my work. We have a real human rights and Equality, Diversity and Inclusion focus in all of our education, so it feels like we can have a big impact on the care that people with mental health issues receive.

There have been many rewarding moments in my career. For example, being able to sit with people when they are at their most distressed and see them get stronger and start recovery and see that light at the end of the tunnel. In the Assessment and Liaison team, it was great to do psych-education work with younger people to help them understand what was happening for them and empower them and help them to find the right support.

There is a real variety in the work we do at South London and Maudsley and many opportunities for training and development. There are lots of initiatives and projects that we can contribute to. It’s not just about your own role, you can have an impact in wider ways through research and training.

Why did you decide to become a mental health nurse?
It’s an interesting story! I moved to London from Ireland at 19 and didn’t know many people. I started working in pubs to meet people. I met my partner and we managed pubs around South London. Sometimes it was chaos and you had to be able to juggle! Running a pub, you meet people from many walks of life, including those with addiction and mental health problems and it highlighted for me how damaging these can be.

Before this I was working as a support worker in nursing homes and found it very rewarding to care for people. I decided to look for healthcare assistant jobs and saw one advertised at Bethlem - very convenient as I lived nearby! The people who interviewed me saw that I had an interest in mental health, and lots of transferable skills. They took a chance on me and the role worked really well. I learned a lot and was really well-supported. Later on, I completed my nursing training at King’s College London on secondment from the Trust.

What would you say to someone considering being a mental health nurse?
Absolutely go for it! I am really passionate about it and it really engages me. I’ve really developed as a person being a mental health nurse. I think you learn so much about yourself as well as the patients. It’s really rewarding and enriching. As long as you protect yourself from burnout, which I’ve been very careful to do, there’s something really life-affirming about being a mental health nurse.

Interview by South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.