They say time flies when you’re having fun, so I’m assuming that’s why my placement seems like it started only yesterday! Of course, since commencing my placement at Woking Mind in September, it has not been all fun and games. There have been numerous challenges, too. Although I now view these situations as opportunities which developed my problem-solving and resilience, this doesn’t mean that there haven’t been times in the last eight months where I’ve questioned my capabilities… Indeed, on one occasion I did in fact find myself shut inside an art cupboard, but that’s an entirely different story!! Cupboard antics aside, placement has taught me many valuable lessons, both academic and personal. In this post, I will be reflecting on what I have learned, as well as sharing some tips on preparing yourself for placement year (spoiler alert – coffee will become your best friend). Of course, everyone’s experience will vary depending, so this is just my own personal reflections. Nonetheless, I do hope it will provide some insight into the placement experience. Hope you enjoy! 😊
The Cinderella Myth – there is no ‘perfect’ fit
Now, I’m the kind of person who likes certainty. I like to know that by doing x, and combining with y, I will achieve z. When it soon became apparent that this black-and-white thinking didn’t really apply to my placement, naturally, I panicked. Not the type of blind panic felt when submitting coursework mere minutes before the deadline (let’s be honest, we’ve all been there), but panic nonetheless.
I was so preoccupied with wanting to be the ‘perfect’ placement student, saying and doing all the right things, that I failed to realise that perfection wasn’t the most important outcome. In fact, there was another ‘p’ that would get me much further. No, I’m not talking about the ‘pea’ that the princess finds under her mattress (I think one fairy-tale analogy is probably enough for one blog post!!).
What I’m referring to is passion! Enthusiasm and an open mind have served me much more on my placement than perfectionism ever did. As my role involves a high level of client-facing work, I spend most of my time listening to people’s mental health concerns. What I found was that clients were not expecting me to have all the answers. At the end of the day, each person is a unique individual, with equally unique problems. They can’t be pigeonholed into neat categories with nice, tidy solutions. Ultimately, clients wanted me to provide a listening ear, hearing what they had to say without judgement.
In my case, showing that I genuinely cared meant more than having a ‘perfect’ response to whatever was shared with me. Whilst this may be particularly relevant to working in the mental health sector, passion and enthusiasm are arguably important attributes in many jobs. So, the glass slipper may not fit, but that’s OK – it’s not the shoe that’s important, but the attitude you wear it with. 😉
Always look on the bright side (even when you’re stuck in a dark art cupboard)
Working in a clinical environment with vulnerable people has meant that I have heard some very personal stories, some of which were not easy to listen to. However, during my time on placement I have also been exposed to some darkly brilliant humour, inspiring stories of change, and witnessed people overcome their difficulties, often not realising their own capability to do so.
My point here is that there is often hope to be found, even if it is not apparent in the present moment. For every tricky moment, there is likely to be two wonderful ones. This is not to gloss over the difficult reality that many people with mental health struggles face. Rather, looking on the positive side of things was a coping mechanism I utilised to remind myself that the clients I was caring for didn’t need to be ‘rescued’. They most likely had the means to help themselves – it was simply my job to support and advise them on this journey, no matter how long or difficult it was.
Now, for the moment you’ve all been waiting for… the art cupboard story. Picture the scene – a badly designed room on a busy day. At my placement workplace, the kitchen door opens out onto an adjacent art cupboard, meaning that one door must be shut to gain access to the other. On this particular day, I happened to be rummaging around for art supplies when somebody exited the kitchen, and suddenly was plunged into darkness as the kitchen door pushed the cupboard door to a close. As this was at a fairly early stage of my placement, I didn’t really have the confidence to speak out, so I just chilled amongst the paints for a bit (in all honesty, it was almost a welcome break from the chaos of the day!).
However, claustrophobia soon kicked in, so once I sensed the opportunity to come out, I took it. Almost immediately I was greeted by a client attempting to enter the cupboard with me (I can only assume that he too wanted some respite from the group noisiness!). But finally, I managed to wedge myself free. The moral of the story? Don’t venture into art cupboards. Only kidding! Whilst this situation was unexpected, I now look back on it as an amusing placement anecdote. No real harm was done, and it taught me an important lesson about setting boundaries and taking control of the situation.
Saying ‘yes’ is rarely a bad thing (but also remember it’s OK to say ‘no’)
A major thing I have learned over placement is the importance of embracing opportunities as they arise.
For context, my placement had only been taking on interns for the last few years, and the organisation had expanded a decent amount in that time. This, combined with the impact of the pandemic and WFH, meant that they were still ascertaining what activities would be appropriate to assign to interns.
As a result, a lot of my workplace tasks were assigned on the basis of being asked ‘do you want to help with this?’ By saying yes to the opportunities coming my way, I was able to build up a varied and interesting working week. This consisted of a mixture of in-person work, like shadowing support groups, as well as remote activities such as calling clients to signpost them to the relevant services. I even was lucky enough to attend an 8-week Mindfulness in the Workplace course for staff, teaching me valuable lessons about myself and my approach to work.
The ‘yes process’ is a theme that has continued throughout my placement. More recently, I have had the opportunity to write for the Woking Mind newsletter, and in the coming weeks I will be covering for a senior member of staff, allowing me to learn more about management and the structure of the company.
Of course, an equally important skill is recognising when to say ‘no’ and reduce the risk of stretching yourself too thin. Working in mental health services has taught me the important lesson of caring for my OWN health, in order to support others’. We all like inspirational posts about self-love and self-care on Instagram, but how many of us actually put them into practice? For me, falling sick with coronavirus at an extremely busy point in my placement was the moment that forced me to heed that advice. I am a people pleaser by nature, and worried that taking time out to focus on my health would reflect badly on me. It just so happened that my sickness coincided with being offered additional workplace responsibilities, meaning that saying ‘no’ felt even more uncomfortable.
However, when you’re lying in bed surrounded by a mammoth supply of hand gel and Kleenex, you have to take a reality check. How was I meant to perform to the standards required of me when I could barely get out of bed? I realised that I was being unreasonable with myself and made the necessary arrangements to take some time off.
And guess what? The world kept turning. In fact, my colleagues couldn’t have been more understanding and supportive during this time. I am a big believer that everything happens for a reason, and I truly feel that having this break away from placement made me appreciate the work more. When I returned to work, I felt re-energised and refreshed. Plus, the opportunities I was so afraid of missing out on were simply changed to another date.
To be clear, I am not suggesting you contract Covid to get the most out of placement! However, realise that your output will only be as good as your input. If you are burning the candle at both ends and not taking the time to refuel, you risk creating a work-life that is based on quantity not quality. You don’t have to say yes to EVERYTHING, but you should always say yes to a colleague’s breaktime biscuit offer. 😉
Embrace your inner student
Whilst on placement, I often found myself ‘forgetting’ that I was still a student. The reduced coursework and, in my case, being away from campus, meant that I had switched off ‘student mode’ in favour of ‘intern mode’.
Yet, it is good to remember that placement is ultimately a learning curve meant to enhance your degree experience. Beyond the fact that you will have to report back to Uni at the end of placement year about what you have learned, it can be useful to incorporate such reflective practice into your day-to-day, too. For me, I spent the bulk of my time supervising groups designed to support people struggling with various mental health concerns. Of course, my ‘intern’ self was acutely away of my position of responsibility within the sessions. However, I gradually began to use my ‘student’ self to consider how I could use what had been discussed for my own benefit, too. What lessons had it taught me? How could I apply these lessons to my life and personal outlook?
By doing this, I feel that I got more out of the groups. It also helped me to relax and counteract my need to speak up just for the sake of doing something. Yes, you learn from what you do, but the relationship works both ways – sometimes, you should do as you learn. 😊
And so concludes this post about my placement experience so far. With only a few months left until I lock the art cupboard door for the very last time (hopefully on the outside this time!!), I can safely say it is an experience that will stay with me throughout my academic and personal life. Now, I must head off for my mandatory custard cream break…