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Professor with 40-year NHS career aims to inspire more nurses to pursue research

International Day of Women and Girls in Science, marked on 11 February, is an opportunity to promote equal participation in science for women and girls, and to celebrate women leading in research.

Fiona Nolan is a Clinical Professor in Mental Health Nursing at Anglia Ruskin University, and is linked with Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust in her role.

Through research, Fiona’s career has taken her around the world. She has collaborated with colleagues in many countries in recent years, including China, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Fiona moved to the UK from Ireland to undertake nurse training, and qualified as a mental health nurse aged 21. She later competed a degree in Politics and Economics, and received her PhD in Social and Community Psychiatry from University College London.

She has experience of working in acute inpatient and community care, and also as a community mental health nurse.

She has maintained a clinical and academic role for many years, which is unusual in the nursing profession.

Her involvement in research began in 1999 when she took up a short term role as a research nurse on a trial of home treatment and mental health crisis teams. She later managed a crisis team, and was involved in research to evaluate new mental health services.

Fiona has collaborated with colleagues in many countries in recent years, including China, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Fiona said: “I first visited Mongolia, where I have carried out most of my international work, in 2014 as part of an NHS delegation. I led a programme of work which received 1 million euros in funding from the European Commissions’ Erasmus + scheme.

“This was an exciting collaboration between mental health nursing colleagues in the UK, Finland, the Netherlands and Mongolia to develop a post graduate training course in mental health for registered nurses and was completed in 2021.

“At the moment, I'm progressing a cross-country evaluation of attitudes and stigma towards mental health illness in healthcare professionals and other industries, with the aim of identifying similarities and differences between cultures and exploring how any negative attitudes can be best addressed in each country.

“The organisations which have so far been key to this work are the International Institute for Health and Social Care in Sri Lanka, the Centre for Mental Health linked to the University of Shanghai in China, and Enerel Medical Institute in Mongolia.”

Fiona chairs a charity, the Zimbabwe Life project, founded with colleagues from EPUT which provides support for mental health professionals, and channels donations to mental health inpatient services in Zimbabwe.  

Fiona is currently leading a study to explore the use of body worn cameras and cameras in patients’ bedrooms in mental health inpatient wards. The research is funded through an Anglia Ruskin University and EPUT partnership, called the Digital Health Innovation Hub.

When the Florence Nightingale Foundation established a cohort of clinical chairs in nursing, Fiona was awarded a professorship in mental health nursing. This was a joint role between the University of Essex and EPUT, and one of only eight in the country, which she held until the cohort was disbanded in 2021. 

Fiona is passionate about nurses being leaders in research. She said: “It’s important we attract nurses interested in progressing healthcare and contributing to research, developing evidence for all professions to support their work.”

“I have been extremely privileged to have worked within the NHS for almost 40 years, and to have had such opportunities to work across professions, cultures and countries, sharing knowledge and ideas to improve the care of people with mental disorders.

“However, my career in research was initially supported by psychiatrist colleagues. There was, and still is, a dearth of nursing role models who are engaged in research at the same time as maintaining their clinical practice. This is slowly changing and organisations such as EPUT are leading the way in offering these opportunities.”

Fiona has just completed a three year tenure as elected Chair of Mental Health Nurse Academics UK which is a professional interest network for anyone interested in mental health nurse education or research.

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