WHEN the younger generation of mental health nurses needed someone to turn to in the face of a crisis, they often turned to someone like seasoned veteran Bill Nikolajevs.

Regarded as a cool, calm and collected presence in a workplace where aggression and confusion is a daily challenge, Mr Nikolajevs was seen as a battle-hardened mentor down at The Park Centre for Mental Health, where he retired this week after 51 years.

When Mr Nikolajevs started working at what was then known as the Brisbane Special Hospital, on March 5, 1965, patients outnumbered staff three to one, and attitudes to mental illness were much different.

"I started working in mental health by accident," Mr Nikolajevs said.

"My folks were both ill and I needed to get a job nearby so that I could look after them.

"You had to have certain educational standards, but they were basically taking people off the streets in those days."

Pretty soon Mr Nikolajevs found himself attached to the job.

He became a clinical nurse in the high-security area, working in the rehabilitation of patients whose mental illness had led them to commit often the most serious crimes.

"My role was to try to rehabilitate clients, with the help of (a range of other professionals)," he said.

"The hardest part was dealing with the criminally insane. It's not that I was scared, because I always had other people there to support me. When I was dealing with clients that I would consider dangerous, they were in a secure environment."

Mr Nilolajevs had planned to retire much earlier, but a serious fall at home that left him with multiple broken bones delayed the announcement.

For the last year he's been more focussed on getting better.

Among the workmates to give Bill his well-deserved farewell on Thursday was Joshua Tamsett, a clinical nurse who was mentored by the retiree.

"Bill was my supervisor in high-security from June 2012," Mr Tamsett said.

"There were several incidents where there was just chaos because of some aggressive patients, but Bill always just kept that very cool, calm manner about him.

"I learned a lot from him. He would often just take a step back and let you take control of a shift.

"This gave me a lot of the skills and abilities required to become a clinical nurse."

The workplace Mr Nikolajevs retired from this week was not only different by name, but different by nature to the one he started in all those years ago.

Staff to patient ratios are now the reverse of what they were, and the world is more attuned to the needs of people with mental health problems.

"It's televised now, people are reading about it, and it doesn't have that stigma attached to it," he said.

"When I started here, it was an issue that was often swept under the carpet."

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