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Guest blog: The silence of a student nurse — Nursing my career or my courage?

Following the previous, and most recent, sex abuse scandals from Jimmy Savile to Harvey Weinstein, I wonder when our hard-working nurses and midwives will speak up to shame those who took advantage of their positions and sexually assaulted, harassed or abused nurses and midwives (student and qualified).

If the nursing and midwifery world is to be free of sexual abuse and scandals, we cannot stay silent. My question is, why is it okay to talk about low pay, burnt out and undervalued staff, and other issues that undermine our profession, but very little is said about sexual harassment towards student nurses and midwives?

Therefore, if no one will speak about it, I will, because it happened to me and I know it has happened to others who do not know how to speak up.

When I was a student nurse on my first placement on an acute mental health ward, a male nurse sexually harassed me non-stop, and he continued to do this until I reported him to the ward manager. The male nurse was my mentor, he threatened me about my future career as a nurse.

Often, when I was not on placement, my mentor would ring me on my mobile and threaten me: “I have been asking you to date me, and you have been rejecting me, let me warn you to think of your future are a nurse..." When I stopped taking his calls, he left threatening voice messages with sexual innuendos. I was very anxious each time I had to go for placement, and I cried a lot.

Soon after the phone calls started, the male nurse touched inappropriately me one day when he walked past me, and another time when he had to sign my placement pad. I remember running out of the ward that day and crying at the bus stop because I did not know how to stop the continuous harassment.

I reported the sexual harassment to a female nurse, and she advised me to report the matter to the ward manager, so I did. I also showed the ward manager the text messages and let him listen to the voice messages. The ward manager begged me not to report to the matron, and so I was given another mentor. I was happy for the change of mentor, but that placement marked an anxious time. I had to work a shift with my mentor and the other male nurses who now hated me for speaking up against sexual harassment.

As much as I would like to say that the experience was a one-off, it wasn’t.

During the final year of my nursing degree, I was on a placement in a different hospital. Each time my mentor was off, another nurse would choose to go on home visits with me.

The nurse told me he could be my sugar daddy and buy me gifts. I asked him to stop, but he refused and continued with his sexually explicit conversations that I chose to ignore. It was a highly uncomfortable experience because we were in a smart car, which meant that we were sitting very close. I ignored him all through the journey, and back.

When we got to the office, I went to get water from the water fountain and suddenly, I felt someone grab me from behind and put his hands on my breast. I jumped in shock, turned and around and saw the same male nurse. He looked at me like he owned me, laughed loud and walked away.That day, I made an official report to my mentor, and the placement manager started an internal investigation. During the investigation, the male nurse continued to come to work, and he would look at me with extreme hatred. It was a very anxious and depressing time, and I cried often. Throughout the following weeks of my placement, I would sit and cry, unable to concentrate or focus.

Soon after, I learnt that a classmate of mine had also suffered sexual harassment from the same male nurse in the Home Treatment Team, but she did not report it. She was on placement there before my arrival. I was very sad to hear that she did not report these incidents because I felt, and still feel, that if she had reported it, the male nurse would not have tried it with me or any other nurse.

The internal investigation led to a disciplinary hearing. During the disciplinary meeting, a female RCN representative for the male nurse looked at me and said: ”well some people look certain ways, and so they invite sexual harassment”. When I asked what she meant, she replied: “maybe you should look at yourself and ask why he groped you, and said and did the other things." I just sat there and cried. To date, I do not know the outcome of the disciplinary investigation. Sexual harassment and abuse should not be tolerated in any circumstances, let alone among higher education nursing and midwifery students. Sexual harassment and abuse can trigger and sustain mental health problems among students nurses and midwives. Worst still, most students qualify as nurses and may end up working with the perpetrators of this sexual abuse. Sadly, some of these perpetrators may become ward managers or attain higher positions of power, further limiting ‘the voice’ of the now newly-qualified nurse or midwife.

So, here, I have written mine, and I am calling on student nurses and midwives, mentors, ward managers, sisters and all involved in our esteemed profession to speak up and shame the male or female nurses who participate in, and perpetuate, sexual harassment and abuse.

Raising awareness of mental health in higher education (RAMHE) is more than diagnosis; it is sometimes about stressors, and top on this list for qualified nurses and mIdwives may well be sexual harassment.

Josephine NwaAmaka Bardi is the founder of RAMHE, and an Economic and Social Research Council PhD student, Mental Health and Wellbeing, University of Nottingham. Follow her on Twitter: @jobardi and @ramhe

Note: The views and opinions expressed by authors of Guest Blog posts and by those providing comments do not necessarily reflect those of ProtectED. Information on products or services is provided “as is” with no warranties, and confers no rights.

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