How my experiences led me to a career in Mental Health

03 November 2021

For years, mental health struggles and gastrointestinal symptoms impacted Hakeem's studies and day-to-day.

Now studying to be a Mental Health Nurse, Hakeem tells us how receiving a Crohn's diagnosis and opening up about what was going on became the key to fulfilling a long-standing dream.


My battles with anxiety and stress began as a teenager, and it’s hard to think of moments during those years that I was not plagued by worry.

Hakeem
Living with Crohn's

These issues were often accompanied by stomach pain and nausea, which my GP felt were psychological as opposed to any underlying physical health problem. This awakened my interest in mental health issues and how they can impact a person’s physical health, as I’d been told was the case with myself.

In 2014, I was nearing the end of a degree in Music Production and feeling disillusioned with music studies. Instead, I was leaning towards working in mental health. University had been tough due to physical symptoms of pain, fatigue, and inconsistent bowel habits which negatively affected my mental health.

I struggled to focus but avoided asking for help as I didn’t know what exactly I needed help with.

After finishing University, I began toying with the idea of post graduate study in mental health nursing, so I completed an application and was invited to several interviews.

I failed my first interview. It involved a full day at the University undertaking group assessments, maths tests, English tests, and a one-to-one interview. I remember having issues with my stomach that day and by the time I reached the end of the one-to-one interview my main concern was access to pain relief and sleep.

Earlier that year I had minor surgery and had started having investigations for a fistula which had developed. Suffice to say my head wasn’t in it, and neither was my body. Stressed would be a big understatement. After hearing that the interview had not been a success, I withdrew my application.

Failing had confirmed to me that education wasn’t something I could cope with moving forward.

I took a job in a supermarket, which led me to hospitality and then eventually working as a support worker at a mental health unit. Throughout, I was quietly suffering with a feeling that something was still wrong.

My first major flare came in October of 2018, and I spent a week in hospital where I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease. After the initial shock of the diagnosis everything clicked into place. I was prescribed steroids and azathioprine after my initial diagnosis which gave my body the respite it needed. This gave me the space I needed to learn more about Crohn’s and try to make sense of my years without a diagnosis.

The more I read about Crohn’s, the clearer it became that this had been below the surface for a long time.

I have an excellent Gastro team who I am always able to contact with questions or to seek support, and my family, close friends, and partner have all been monumental to the success of my treatment.

Another source of support has been the Crohn’s & Colitis UK Facebook Forum. I became a member of this group when first diagnosed and I found it useful hearing how others coped living with Crohn’s or Colitis. Now, I try to support others who are newly diagnosed or have questions surrounding the illness.

This online group helps me understand that the way I felt before diagnosis is not unusual. Others have been through it and are going through it right now. The biggest challenge in my life now had a name and, with my support in place, I felt ready to face the challenges presented during post graduate study in Mental Health Nursing.

In my next application, I discussed the mental resilience needed to live with a chronic condition.

I explained my feeling that, although there is a large amount of support focused on the physical symptoms, there needs to be an equal focus on the mental health impact. I was invited to an interview where I also discussed the mental health complexities that I’ve experienced whilst living with Crohn’s. The interview was successful, and I was asked to complete a portfolio detailing the work and life experience I’d gained that I felt would be relevant to becoming a nurse.

Working on this portfolio for nursing gave me a focus beyond my next clinic appointment or dwelling on what might happen with my illness.

I had to be disciplined with my time, but I allowed myself flexibility when I felt unwell and there were moments where I had to stop and allow my body to catch up. When having infusions, I found myself using the time for research, asking my nurses questions about various aspects of nursing.

My portfolio was successful, and I started training as a Student Nurse in September 2021.

I told universities about my Crohn's right from the start of my application, so it didn’t become something I was trying to hide or cover up. I used Crohn’s & Colitis UK’s Talking Toolkit to create a dialogue with my university and workplace, so I felt safe and able to speak out. The Talking Toolkit helped to introduce a section during supervision with my line manager where we discussed my illness and how my treatments were going.

Feeling confident enough to be open with my workplace and University has not only alleviated the stress I’d have felt pretending that everything is fine, but also taught me that sometimes the bravest thing to do is ask for help.

Being open about my condition tells others that I’m not ashamed of living with Crohn’s and helps them feel comfortable enough to ask questions, which can reduce stigma and correct assumptions that surround Crohn’s and Colitis. I hope all of this can go a long way toward educating workplace or educational institutions on how individuals can be best supported by them.

Three years ago, I felt impossible dread when I thought of further University study, now I feel excited to start my academic work and begin my placements.

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