Ms Olivia Corcoran
Lecturer and Programme Coordinator, BSc (Hons) in Mental Health Nursing, Department of Nursing & Healthcare
Dr Laura Dempsey
Lecturer & Programme Director, BSc (Hons) in General Nursing, Department of Nursing & Healthcare, TUS Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest
The experiences of nursing students who found themselves in the frontline of pandemic care are defining a new era in nursing education.
The COVID-19 pandemic put healthcare workers, amongst others, under untold pressure as they helped care for those in need. Many nursing students found themselves on the front line of care, at a very early stage of their career, often managing acutely unwell and even dying patients with the support of their superiors.
TUS’ (Technological University of the Shannon) nursing students found themselves in this position. The university prides itself on producing nurses who can infuse their clinical judgements with a higher level of critical thinking and reasoning, never has this been so important.
Dr Laura Dempsey, Lecturer and Programme Director for TUS’ BSc (Hons) in General Nursing, describes these students as incredible. She says: “They experienced so much that wouldn’t ordinarily have happened as early in their training.”
Maintaining patient connections
During their placements student nurses quickly identified the importance of infection control measures, such as handwashing and correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Critically, they also identified the importance of connecting with patients, particularly those negatively affected by visiting restrictions.
Dr Dempsey explains: “Students understood that human interaction was missing. They took up the family role: they were the ones facilitating Zoom calls and window visits; they were at bedsides, holding patients’ hands in their last hours of life. Even though it was a pressured time, they learned the importance of sitting and talking with patients and really getting to know them.”
Emerging mental health need
As the country recovers from the pandemic, these critical skills remain in demand and nowhere more so than in the field of mental health.
Ireland’s new health strategy focuses attention on caring for people as close to their homes as possible. For TUS student nurses dealing with patients with mental illness, this means sharpening their diagnostic skills to recognise in the shortest of consultations any deterioration in a patient’s health and to decide the most appropriate level of care.
As an educational facility, we need to be able to educate our students to be able to treat any kind of mental health problem.Olivia Corcoran
Treating all mental health problems
According to Olivia Corcoran, Lecturer and Programme Coordinator for the BSc (Hons) in Mental Health Nursing at the TUS, this field of nursing is physically, as well as intellectually demanding which is why the university prioritises the development of quality assurance methods and collaborations with organisations at the coalface of emerging mental health need.
One of these, Jigsaw, which specialises in the mental health of young people under the age of 18, gives the university a better understanding of the skills future nurses will need. Corcoran explains: “There are major shortages of mental health professionals throughout Ireland.
“As an educational facility, we need to be able to educate our students to be able to treat any kind of mental health problem. For example, having COVID-19 or the impact of being a refugee or asylum seeker could result in developing a mental health condition from traumatic experiences. We need to be able to look at what’s current and ensure our students have the skills to care.”
Adapting the future curriculum
To shape the future curriculum and its student support services, the unique experiences of TUS students during the pandemic have now been captured in research. The concept of ‘compassion fatigue’ has been coined to inform the development of support and advice for nursing students in areas such as self-care, resilience training and stress management.
Dr Dempsey explains: “Nursing is a very rewarding career but, by definition, it is also very dynamic and very demanding. That is why we felt we need to look after our undergraduate students and integrate those types of fundamentals into the curriculum going forward.”
The Department of Nursing and Healthcare has almost 450 students and is part of the Faculty of Science and Health on the Athlone Campus of TUS. As well as a suite undergraduate Healthcare Programmes and Postgraduate Nursing Programmes; the Department offers Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland (NMBI) accredited, BSc. (Hons) Degree programmes in General and Mental Health Nursing. These programmes are delivered in partnership with the HSE facilities across the Midlands in Longford Westmeath and Laois/Offaly.Dr. Des Cawley, Head of Department of Nursing and Healthcare Department of Nursing & Healthcare, TUS Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest