The sunny side of the street

Student nurse, UNISON member and Nursing Times award-winner Sunny Atkinson is proving a powerful force for change. By Demetrios Matheou

                                                                                                      Image: Ralph Hodgson

Sunny Atkinson has been on an extraordinary journey – arriving in the UK from Jamaica as a teenager, becoming a dental nurse, a mother of two, and now changing career to mental health nursing. On top of of all that, she’s discovering her voice as an advocate for her fellow nursing and midwifery students.

In April, Sunny won the ‘outstanding contribution to student affairs’ category at the Nursing Times Student Awards. The award recognises a student who, during their time at university, has in some way enhanced the experience of their fellow student nurses and midwives.

Now in her final year at Essex University, Sunny is determined to improve the quality of the all-important work placements, which she immediately found to be less than adequate.

“My first clinical placement wasn’t a good start for me. Nurses didn’t have time to sign your paperwork. I am trying to shadow them, but they didn’t want me to follow them. I’ll ask them a question, and they will look at me in a disdainful way, like, ‘Why are you asking me this? I felt like a nuisance to them.

“And I’m thinking, ‘If I’m here to learn, and no one has time for me, how am I gonna know what to do when I end up becoming a nurse? From that first experience, I realised the reason why nurses are dropping out in the first year of qualification, because by the time we qualify, we haven’t had enough proper guidance and support from the nurses on the floor. So when we go in, head-on, we know nothing. And we get burned out, because we didn’t get taught the necessary skills.”

This continued to be her placement experience, in both public and private sector settings, so Sunny started to write about the subject in personal blogs for Nursing Times. “Nobody was talking about these challenges. You’re supposed to be resistant, tenacious, ambitious – and not complain. But that just didn’t work for me,” she recalls.

Sunny collecting her award, with Nursing Times editor Steve Ford and two of the judges. Image: Nursing Times

Nursing Times was impressed enough by her contributions to make her a student editor, enabling her to continue to write on issues affecting health students, from placements, to the loneliness and mental health challenges felt by university students, to strike action. And suddenly her profile started to lead to further opportunities elsewhere.

In 2022, Health Education England invited Sunny to be an East of England student ambassador on its RePAIR project, which seeks to reduce health student attrition and improve the retention of the newly qualified workforce in the early stages of their careers; as Sunny puts it, “to talk about the challenges that we face and why students are dropping out.”

Around the same time, she also took part in the Student Leadership Programme, informally known as #150 Leaders. Co-funded by the Council of Deans of Health and the charitable Burdett Trust for Nursing, the programme aims to develop leadership skills among students across the healthcare professions.

“They teach you how to network, team building, project building, how to deal with impostor syndrome, different leadership styles,” she explains. As part of the course, everyone has to create a project, on an area they would like to improve. Drawing on her past and current specialisms, Sunny’s involved the introduction of oral healthcare – dental screening and treatment – into mental health settings, where she says it is  conspicuously absent. She pitched it to NHS East of England and hopes that this will eventually become a reality.

                                                                                                         Image: Ralph Hodgson

Looking back on that experience, Sunny says: “I didn’t want to apply because I didn’t perceive myself as a leader. I’m quite introverted.” She laughs. “I spend most time talking to my plants or reading. It’s only when I went on the programme that I realised that leadership doesn’t mean that you have to manage a team; leadership is about making positive changes. I walked away feeling like a leader, because I advocate and I’m proactive. I have vision. It’s leading by example.”

Last year she cemented that experience and continued to grow in confidence by participating in UNISON’s own Future Health Leaders programme. This annual programme for UNISON health students allows them to meet healthcare leaders, undertake local campaigning activities, improve activist and advocacy skills, learn about healthcare policy and how to influence it, and develop their understanding of key equality issues.

Of her time on the course, Sunny says: “I walked away feeling that my voice has been heard, and I am having an impact on the way people see things.”

And UNISON’s national officer for nursing, Stuart Tuckwood, says of Sunny: “Sunny is always buzzing with ideas and her passion for helping others and improving mental health is really inspiring. She thinks really creatively about new ways of doing things and has the energy to follow her ideas through.

“When the NHS is as stretched as it is, it’s very reassuring to know we still have talented, caring people like Sunny committed to their communities and patients.”

Future Health Leaders: find out more

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