Life as a mental health nurse
It is estimated that one in four people in the UK will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. It means the need for specialist mental health nurses – who can support people both through acute periods of ill health and through lifelong difficulties – is clear and growing.
What does a mental health nurse do?
At the simplest level, mental health nurses care for those experiencing mental illness. The more complicated answer is that there are huge range of roles within that broad description.
Some mental health nurses work in the community. Referred to as community psychiatric nurses, these individuals could be based in a GP practice, clinic, or form part of a child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS). They could also be based in non-healthcare settings such as prisons.
Other mental health nurses are based in hospital settings. This could mean either a ward or an outpatient clinic.
In some services, nurses see patients with all different types of mental illness. Others will specialise in caring for patients with a certain type of illness – within a specialist unit for perinatal mental illness, eating disorders, or personality disorder, for instance.
Mental health nurses also care for people with dementia, and for those with drug and alcohol dependency.
Specific tasks can include:
- Administering questionnaires and similar tools to assess someone’s condition
- Working with patients and their families to understand when someone’s condition is deteriorating – and organising appropriate intervention
- Giving counselling or talking therapies
- Supporting people during a period of crisis
- Supporting patients to take their medication and manage their wellbeing
Mental health nursing generally involves working as part of a multidisciplinary team including psychiatrists, psychologists and occupational and other therapists.
Steve is a community psychiatric nurse. This morning he has an outpatient clinic. He sees patients with a range of mental illnesses and monitors their conditions, talks through medications, and generally discusses wellbeing. One patient raises money worries, so Steve liaises with his social worker colleague. In the afternoon, he’ll be visiting patients in their own homes. That includes supporting people who have recently been discharged after an inpatient stay, helping them return to life in the community.
What skills does a mental health nurse need?
You’ll need to be compassionate, non-judgemental and able to empathise with those experiencing mental distress. That includes understanding the stigma they may be facing as a result. Communication and interpersonal skills are key.
So too is the ability to stay calm under pressure. If a patient is very severely mentally ill, his or her behaviour may be distressing.
How do I become a mental health nurse?
It is possible to take a nursing degree which is focused on mental health nursing. Alternatively, you can qualify – and even work – as a registered general nurse first and then take a post-registration course in mental health nursing.
Mental health nurses working in the NHS normally start at band 5. More senior roles tend to be at bands 6, 7 and 8.