An army veteran, who received an MBE for her work with bereaved military families, says bolstering the NHS workforce is more important than ever as she retrains to become a mental health nurse at UEA.
Lou O’Connell MBE who is 44 and lives in Norwich, decided upon a career change after 22 years of service in the British Army where she was deployed on operations in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo.
She’s now studying Mental Health Nursing full time at UEA and has been one of hundreds of students who have helped strengthen the NHS workforce during the COVID-19 pandemic.
This comes on International Nurses Day (12 May) where nurses are recognised globally, with a spotlight on their impact during the pandemic.
Lou joined the army at 19 years old as a Royal Military Policewoman, going on to become an Army Welfare Worker supporting soldiers and their families with social and occupational welfare problems.
She said: “There isn’t really a civilian equivalent to this job to be honest, I was a counsellor, mentor, befriender and social worker. I saw the best of people, but also the very worst of people as they went through pretty tough times.”
Her role included a stint at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham helping soldiers flown direct from the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields, and their families, to come to terms with sometimes life changing injuries.
Lou continued: “I worked alongside mental health nurses in the specialist trauma centre and was inspired by their work to train to become a nurse myself. Every day they battled to bring the mental health effects of fighting into the spotlight, when they weren’t as visible as an amputation for example.”
Alongside her day job Lou has always volunteered for bereavement charities, including local organisation Nelson’s Journey. “You could say bereavement is my Mastermind specialist subject.” she said.
I suffered quite a lot of loss when I was very young, with my brother being hit by a car, my mum dying unexpectedly in her sleep and my boyfriend who died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition. Looking back I unknowingly grew up with people who were suffering with their mental health as a result of great loss.
“Bereavement is a world I can comfortably exist in and I feel a great deal of solidarity with others who are going through the natural reaction to the death of someone they love. It is through this that I began helping others which also steered me towards mental health nursing.”
In 2015 Lou was presented with an MBE by Her Majesty The Queen at Windsor Castle for her work with Families Activity Breaks for Bereaved Military Families (FAB) who organise activity breaks for Service children and their families who have been bereaved.
Reaching 22 years of service in the army, Lou took the plunge and applied to study Mental Health nursing. She said: “As a mature student, I’ve gone from a very secure role to working two or three part time jobs and juggling studying, but I can honestly say that this has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, especially the placements I have had the chance to do.
“As infection rates and deaths continue to fall in this country, the long-term effects on people’s mental health will be felt for months and years to come. The NHS needs people more than ever.”
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