Matthew struggled with his own mental health for many years, after illness and trauma. But now, after four years studying as an apprentice alongside his full-time job, he’s stepping back onto wards as a qualified Mental Health Nurse, to show others what’s possible.
Matthew Fairclough, 53, from Blyth, has just started his new job as a Registered Mental Health Nurse at Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Trust (CNTW). He’s been able to qualify thanks to the Trust’s Registered Nurse Degree Apprenticeship, offered by CNTW in partnership with the University of Sunderland.
Matthew first came into contact with NHS mental health services in 2004. “I thought my time in the army was hard,” – he served in the British Army, spending six months in Iraq in 2003 – “but in 2004 I became very ill and spent some time as an inpatient on a psychiatric ward at Oldham General Hospital. And in early 2010 I suffered some more trauma and bereavement, and was supported by other NHS mental health services; that was probably the hardest year of my life.”
Matthew first became involved with CNTW the same year, in 2010. “When I was ready to leave the service which was supporting me, someone asked, what are you going to do next? I just knew that I wanted to help other people that may be going through some of the same things as I had.
The apprenticeship has opened up so many career progression opportunities for me.
“One of the staff members supporting me suggested contacting the Trust about volunteering, which I did. The rest, as they say, is history!” Matthew spent three years as a volunteer supporting patients on rehabilitation units at St George’s Park hospital in Morpeth.
In 2013, Matthew got a paid job at the Trust as a Peer Supporter with the North Tyneside Community Treatment Team. Peer Supporters are staff who work alongside clinicians and other staff, using their own experiences of mental health to help others on their journey to recovery by providing encouragement and hope.
Then, in 2019, Matthew took the opportunity to join the Trust’s newly-launched Registered Mental Health Nursing Apprenticeship course. This allowed him to study while still supporting the Community Treatment Team as a Peer Support Worker.
“The apprenticeship has opened up so many career progression opportunities for me. Without this opportunity to learn and earn at the same time, I wouldn’t have been able to undertake this level of training.
“I really liked the fact that the apprenticeship allowed me to put what I’ve learned into practice straight away, rather than waiting to finish training and secure a job.
“Juggling learning and work was a big learning curve, though! I found that planning was key, not only to completing the coursework alongside a full-time job, but also for maintaining my own mental health and wellbeing.
“But my team managers and colleagues were so supportive. They offered me so much guidance and encouragement, and gave me great opportunities to stretch myself in my day-to-day role to support my apprenticeship studies. They understood my different roles and ensured I was able to meet my university requirements as well as my role as a Peer Supporter.”
I want to be a beacon of hope and recovery for people…I hope that my journey to qualifying as a Registered Nurse helps to show people that becoming unwell doesn’t have to be the end of your life or your career.
Matthew has faced personal challenges along the way, too. “It has not always been plain sailing. I suffered the loss of my mother in January 2023, after a long fight with bowel cancer. I had to deal with the funeral and everything else during the last five months of my course, with assignments and a dissertation still demanding my attention. But I managed it – making use of the many techniques I’ve learnt, and wellbeing plans put in place, during my recovery.”
On 1 August 2023, Matthew finally became the proud owner of his official Nursing and Midwifery Council registration, ready to begin work as a Registered Mental Health Nurse.
“I won’t lie, I do feel nervous about walking onto the wards as a newly registered Mental Health Nurse,” he says. “For one thing, I will have a lot more responsibility than I did when working there during my studies! But I am excited too.”
Matthew is often asked why he chose to pursue his Nursing qualification despite all the challenges; he is the first Peer Supporter at CNTW to make the jump to being a Registered Nurse.
“I want to be a beacon of hope and recovery for people; to show what can be accomplished, regardless of your diagnosis or past experiences.
“The patients I’ve worked with over the past four years while I’ve been doing the apprenticeship course have been some of my biggest supporters. I hope that my journey to qualifying as a Registered Nurse helps to show people that becoming unwell doesn’t have to be the end of your life or your career.”
The course has been specifically designed with the Nursing and Midwifery Council to ensure that all the qualification requirements are met, while recognising that those studying it are not traditional full-time nursing students.
The course offers students a unique opportunity to earn and learn, through a combination of learning and paid work on inpatient wards. The course fees are funded by the Apprenticeship Levy, so students do not pay university fees.
To learn more about apprenticeships at CNTW, including the Registered Nursing Degree Apprenticeship, people can visit our apprenticeships page or email [email protected]. You can also find out more about volunteering at CNTW.