Army veteran who helped bereaved families becomes mental health nurse

Lou at her retirement dinner after 22 years serving in the British Army.

Lou at her retirement dinner after 22 years serving in the British Army. - Credit: UEA

An army veteran, who received an MBE for her work with bereaved military families, is set to use her experience in the NHS after retraining to become a mental health nurse in Norwich.

Lou O’Connell, 44, and lives in Norwich, decided upon a career change after 22 years of service in the British Army where she was deployed on operations in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo.

She is now studying mental health nursing full time at the University of East Anglia (UEA) and has been one of hundreds of students who have helped strengthen the NHS workforce during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Lou on board HMS Victory.

Lou on board HMS Victory. - Credit: UEA

Lou joined the army aged 19 as a Royal Military Policewoman, going on to become an Army Welfare Worker supporting soldiers and their families with social and occupational welfare problems.

She said: “There isn’t really a civilian equivalent to this job to be honest, I was a counsellor, mentor, befriender and social worker. I saw the best of people, but also the very worst of people as they went through pretty tough times.”

Her role included a stint at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham helping soldiers flown direct from the Iraq and Afghanistan battlefields, and their families, to come to terms with sometimes life changing injuries.

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She continued: “I worked alongside mental health nurses in the specialist trauma centre and was inspired by their work to train to become a nurse myself. 

“Every day they battled to bring the mental health effects of fighting into the spotlight, when they weren’t as visible as an amputation for example.”

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Alongside her day job Lou has always volunteered for bereavement charities, including local organisation Nelson’s Journey. 

She said: “Regardless of where I have been in the country I have travelled to Norfolk for to help with therapeutic weekends and been involved with Nelson’s Journey for 10 years. 

Lou serving in Northern Ireland in the 1990s.

Lou serving in Northern Ireland in the 1990s. - Credit: UEA

“You could say bereavement is my Mastermind specialist subject.

“I suffered quite a lot of loss when I was very young, with my brother dying after being hit by a car, my mum dying unexpectedly in her sleep and my boyfriend who died suddenly from an undiagnosed heart condition. 

“Looking back I unknowingly grew up with people who were suffering with their mental health as a result of great loss.

“Bereavement is a world I can comfortably exist in and I feel a great deal of solidarity with others who are going through the natural reaction to the death of someone they love. It is through this that I began helping others which also steered me towards mental health nursing.” 

Lou O’Connell being presented with an MBE by Her Majesty The Queen in 2015.

Lou O’Connell being presented with an MBE by Her Majesty The Queen in 2015. - Credit: UEA

In 2015 Lou was presented with an MBE by Her Majesty The Queen at Windsor Castle for her work with Families Activity Breaks for Bereaved Military Families (FAB) who organise activity breaks for service children and their families who have been bereaved.

Reaching 22 years of service in the army, she took the plunge and applied to study mental health nursing at the UEA.

She said: “As a mature student, I’ve gone from a very secure role to working two or three part time jobs and juggling studying, but I can honestly say that this has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, especially the placements I have had the chance to do.

“As infection rates and deaths continue to fall in this country, the long-term effects on people’s mental health will be felt for months and years to come. The NHS needs people more than ever.” 

University of East Anglia.

University of East Anglia. - Credit: Mike Page

She added: “There are a number of veterans at UEA, but I am the only one from my cohort that has a military background. I know that many of my fellow students want to become nurses in the forces but they are obviously a lot younger than I am.”

After graduating Lou plans to work with the mental health trust in Birmingham and hopes to eventually use her military background in her new role.

“I would like to work with specialist veterans' mental health teams, but as a newly qualified nurse of course I have got to earn my stripes again first,” she said.

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