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Nursing the image: representations of care and self-care in mental health nursing

In a collaboration between staff and students from the Department of Mental Health Nursing at King’s, nursing staff across the Bethlem Royal Hospital site and the Bethlem Gallery, Nursing the Image  used photography, curation and exhibition to explore the power of self-representation as a way of modelling self-care for staff and service-users and as a strategy for stress reduction among mental health nurses.

Nursing-the-imageMedia images of nursing do not always communicate the complexity of the nursing role and may contribute to the pressure nurses place on themselves to perform. In a series of artist-led workshops, images were used as prompts for discussion of how nurses are seen and how they see themselves. In a reflective space at the Bethlem Gallery, nurses discussed what kind of images dominate understandings of their profession and how they influence their capacity to care for others and themselves. The nurses worked with artists to create ‘counter-images’ of care, representing their own understandings of their role.

Studies have shown that self-care techniques, including participation in art activities, can successfully alleviate stress. Other studies on developing personal autonomy amongst nursing staff in mental health services, through the generation and dissemination of their own representations of the role, show an increase in staff effectiveness and stress reduction. Teaching nurses stress management strategies can be of significant benefit, resulting in greater productivity, and ultimately a decrease in burnout and attrition.

Following a photographic exhibition of the nurses’ work at the Bethlem Gallery, the works have been installed as posters across the Bethlem Royal Hospital site. The project has served as the basis for an ongoing relationship between the Bethlem Gallery and the nursing community at Bethlem Royal Hospital. The nursing and other staff involved in the project also made an important contribution to a subsequent exhibition at the Bethlem Gallery, Safety in Numbers. The confidence acquired through the earlier encounter with art and artists has enabled staff to explore their capacity for creativity and self-care.

Examples of the posters are available below (click to enlarge).


Project Events

Public photographic exhibition, Bethlem Gallery
Wednesday 11 January–Friday 10 February 2017

The exhibition was held at the Bethlem Gallery 11 January–10 February 2017, and had over 850 visitors.

Over the course of the exhibition, there were three Nursing the Archive workshops, two open to clients, staff and general visitors, and a final one dedicated to retired nursing staff who had previously worked for South London and Maudsley NHS Trust. A close collaboration with the nursing team at the Anxiety Disorders Residential Unit at the Bethlem Royal Hospital has led to the creation of a project website with images and text resulting from one-to-one interviews.

Nursing the image public workshop, Bethlem Gallery
Friday 30 September 2016, 16:00-18:00

An informal workshop was held at the Bethlem to talk about images of nursing and the art of care. The workshop was open to all but in particular aimed at providing a platform for the perspectives of nurses who used to work in mental health settings.

Project feedback

Art practice is often seen merely as a distraction or as a way of relieving stress, but in this project, it became a place where more experiences could be shared and used to generate new images of care that are more resistant to reductive interpretations.
Dr Michaela Ross, artistic lead


Care can be a difficult concept to articulate, yet all of us who have experienced care know what it feels like, and sadly can remember what the absence of it feels like too. Working with silhouettes, cut-outs, symbols of care and of self-care helped us, as a group, to explore both the presence and absence of care in a way that transcended the limitations of a text-based description. The process of working together as a group… worked well as a metaphor for the organisation of care as a collaborative transaction in practice and education.
Mental Health Nurse participant


The art workshops helped transcend the boundaries often established by professional roles, educational or lived experience of mental illness, and artistic ability, so we were all able to learn together and acknowledge some of the intra- and inter-personal processes that result from the conflicting demands of our roles and experience of mental health and illness.
Mental Health Nurse participant

Project team

Ian Noonan, King’s Teaching Fellow and Lecturer in Mental Health, Head of Department of Mental Health, Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing, Midwifery & Palliative Care

Professor Neil Brimblecombe, Director of Nursing at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust (King’s Health Partner). Neil originally trained as a mental health nurse and has worked in a wide range of clinical services including acute inpatient, child and adolescent and crisis/home treatment services in London and the home counties. He has degrees in nursing and medical anthropology and completed his PhD researching outcomes in mental health crisis services. He has published on a range of mental health issues, particularly crisis services, changing professional roles and European mental health services.

Dr Michaela Ross, Artist, The Bethlem Gallery and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Culture, Media & Creative Industries. Michaela is an artist, lecturer and teaching fellow. She has staged and participated in various events exploring the intersections of art practice and pedagogy and collaborated with various museums and galleries including Tate, the Serpentine, the Whitechapel Gallery and Nottingham Contemporary, working on long and short-term projects exploring interpretation, knowledge-production and the possibilities offered by different forms of public participation.

Silvia Davey, Maudsley International. Silvia completed a Masters in Global Mental Health at King’s College London (KCL) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). She is passionate about improving global mental health and has a particular interest in the mental health of immigrants, on which she has undertaken a systematic review. 

Nursing the image  is a collaboration between King's College London’s Florence Nightingale Faculty of Nursing & MIdwifery and The Bethlem Gallery.  It was supported by the university's Culture team.


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