The phrase gentle giant aptly describes Walt Murphy, a 58-year-old mental health officer who has been practising psychiatric nursing for the past 33 years, with no intention of stopping soon.
Murphy, originally from Delaford, Tobago, grew up with a strict father whose words were enough to evoke obedience. Not having a formal education himself, Alexander Murphy, encouraged his sons and daughters to grab hold of education and come Sunday afternoons, when children were playing, they were learning first aid. This foundation, beginning at the age of 17, ending two years later, was the “unconscious precursor” for Murphy’s devotion to nursing. It also cemented his two brothers David and Maxwell in nursing careers while two other siblings did nursing courses.
Taught first aid by Wasworth Duke, father of trade unionist and THA Minority Leader Watson Duke, Murphy, at 25, began his training to become a nurse. At the end, he was given a simple choice, get involved in psychiatric nursing as there was no room for male nurses in general nursing, or find another job. It was a no-brainer for him to enter into a field, then a bit more taboo, to assist in healing the psyche of people.
During his years, Murphy would have touched the lives of many, helping establish the Mental Health and Wellness Centre which has three branches since launching in 2010. The need for proper mental health care has pushed him to launch the Bereavement Support Group at the Jellico Street, Carenage, branch of the wellness centre.
When Murphy entered the field, his peers welcomed him. When he told others of his profession he was rebutted with, “That is woman thing.” For him, it is not. Murphy said from his experience, men were more susceptible to mental breakdown because, unlike women, when men were under stress, they received picong rather than support.
“All of us are in danger of becoming mentally ill. It is just that we have not been exposed to our greatest stressor,” Murphy said, adding that the onset for mental illness in men occurred between ages 17 to 35, and 16 to 35 for women.
Murphy, who is married with no children, said mental health nursing was an extension of his passion and he was not at all deterred when he was made the offer. He added that the brain was an organ that needed care like all organs such that physical and mental health were tied to each other for a person’s well-being.
“The needs of a person must be met to deal with mental illness. Have a range of experiences, it is better to be a jack of all trades than a master of none. Don’t be all work and no play and vice-versa.”
Murphy has been nominated for national award for public service this year. Whether he is awarded or not, Murphy has received enough fulfilment from seeing his clients and not patients get back to their former selves.
“Nursing is my form of worship. The nomination has humbled me. I must stay humble because if I don’t, you know what happens; you become proud and pride comes before the fall,” the Seventh-day Adventist believer said. Growing up with a religious background and facing the stigma that mental illness and demonic possession were linked if not synonymous, Murphy said one of his challenges was getting religious leaders to teach their following about mental illness as the followers are more likely to heed their words than that of a mental health practitioner.
“There is a stigma hinged in religion. I grew up in a traditionally superstitious home but I was sceptical so I tested it. I don’t believe in demon possession but demon harassment. I don’t think that a demon wants to possess one man when there are a host of people out there. Much of mental health nursing is the skill of oration. Most of it is about talk.”
Murphy added that the recidivism of patients are mostly due to them not taking their medication and a lack of support once they are released. In his nine years at the Forensic Ward of St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital, which treats clients that had been sent there on court orders, he began an agriculture therapy programme.
Now, he insists on the dealing with the primary prevention strategies and that is why he is partnering with over 100 schools to teach coping mechanisms. This includes empowering the communities that the mentally ill reside in through outreach programmes. Murphy added that nursing is much more than administering medication but it is service to others, which, to the willing, “it is a calling.”