A MENTAL health nurse working at a Riverina prison has busted the common misconceptions surrounding the dangers of the job ahead of International Nurses Day.
David O'Brien joined the team at Junee Correctional Centre in October 2020 after beginning his nursing career in 2017, and despite community perceptions around working with convicted criminals, he said he felt "safer than working at many emergency departments across Sydney".
"I always feel very safe, and while there are risks working in the prison system, there is also lots of support," he said.
"As nurses, we are always accompanied by a correctional officer unless we assess the risk to be minimal or for confidentiality reasons, and we always do our own risk assessments constantly so as to not put ourselves in harm's way."
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On a day-to-day basis, Mr O'Brien works alongside another mental health nurse to provide first-line mental health care to inmates across the prison, with a focus on crisis intervention.
"When someone is acutely unwell, whether they come from the local courts, police cells or another prison, our primary focus is to stabilise them and refer them on to other professionals here like psychologists and psychiatrists," he said.
Mr O'Brien said the job was essentially "no different to treating other patients in the community".
In fact, he likened the role to working in an emergency department in the respect that both positions were spontaneous and different every day.
"Our main focus is on the safety of both the patients and ourselves, and a big part of that is working towards reintegration into the community when their time comes to be released," Mr O'Brien said.
"We don't want to have to see them come back into the system and mental health can often play a role in that."
While the job can be "intense, confronting and present a lot of trauma", Mr O'Brien said it was rewarding in many ways.
"My goal in this career was to work with marginalised men in the community, and there are many that fit that mould in prison," he said.
"I'm extremely passionate about this, and I can see I'm making a real difference.
"A certain amount are not pleased to be getting the care given the setting they are in, but many have that insight to be grateful because in the community, they may have presented to the emergency department with aggression or violence from their mental illness and as a result, were restrained and put into wards where they don't feel heard."
Aside from the rewards of helping others, the opportunity to grow in the role was also beneficial.
"There are so many opportunities in this role, and not just with custodial services like prisons, but also the local courts, forensic mental health hospitals and across the wider justice health system," Mr O'Brien said.
"It's not easy work, there can be long, hard hours, but if you're passionate enough, it is so rewarding, so I wholeheartedly support anyone who wants to pursue this career.
"Don't just close yourself off to hospitals."
GEO Group Australia's Director of Governance and Continuous Improvement, Kim Blinkhorn, praised the "exceptional work of its nurses at Junee Correctional Centre" in light of International Nurses Day.
"The last 18 months have been challenging for those who work in health services, but the specific challenges of working in a correctional facility during a global pandemic are even more extraordinary," she said.
"The nursing team at Junee has demonstrated a professional approach and a commitment to ensuring infection control protocols have remained in place from the commencement of the restrictions associated with the pandemic, in line with Corrective Services NSW and NSW Health requirements.
"Our nurses are to be commended and celebrated [on May 12], along with all nurses on this special day of recognition."
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