Career Change Advice: Mental Health Nursing
Health Education England’s Ellie Gordon answers questions on mental health nursing.
How can I know if mental health nursing is the right career for me?
There are a number of ways in which you might start to test this. Undertaking volunteer work for third sector organisations that care for people with mental illnesses is good place to start. This will give you a clear idea about the type of work you will be doing and whether you have a passion for helping those with poor mental health.
Look at the services available locally or begin with charities such as MIND. If you are already a nurse or healthcare professional then the possibility of shadowing sessions with a local mental health nursing team could also be investigated. There are shortages of mental health nurses so many mental health trusts may be happy to discuss options for this.
The qualities that all mental health nurses need include empathy, good listening skills and critical thinking skills. The job also demands an ability to be adaptable and flexible in a wide range of different situations; a humanistic approach to caring and a natural inquisitiveness about people. These qualities help with relationship building.
Successful mental health nursing outcomes are heavily reliant on the quality of the relationships between carers, patients and their families and support networks.
Where would I work?
Mental health nurses work in a wide variety of settings ranging from psychiatric or specialist hospital wards to prison settings, children's homes through to someone's front room. There is almost no limit to the places where community mental health nurses work. This is because our work requires a strong focus on patient choice and we will find ourselves in the setting that has been chosen by them as the place they feel most comfortable.
You will usually work as part of a multi-disciplinary team which might include a range of professionals such as GPs, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, arts therapists and healthcare assistants.
Are the clients high-risk and unpredictable?
This is a myth of mental health nursing - that we only see people who are scary and risky.
One in four people experience mental health problems in any given year so we see a huge range of people and different types of mental health challenges.
Even if you find yourself needing to compulsorily commit someone to hospital for safety reasons it is worth putting yourself in that person's shoes - imagine being taken from your own home and made to stay in a hospital that you have never been to before and at a time when you don't feel well but aren't sure why. It is a really scary experience. In that situation we would all say and do things that we wouldn't normally.
Having been a mental health nurse for over 25 years, I would say that although we do sometimes work with people who are high risk, that is the case for many areas of nursing such as an accident and emergency department on a Friday night.
Mostly we see a lot of people who are unwell, people who are scared and people who are very grateful they are getting some help and care from a mental health nurse.
Also, as people recover then the person you are working with and caring for changes. They become less distressed and upset and more focussed on working with you to improve their health and move on with their lives. Which means that your therapeutic relationship changes and moves on from how you can keep the person as safe as possible to helping them recover.
Then you can begin the process of helping them learn and use the techniques and skills needed to help them cope with their challenges independently and over the long-term.
Yes, we do administer and sometimes prescribe medication as part of this process, but we do this in a concordant way with the person. We rely most on skills such as relationship building, enhanced communication skills and therapies to work with and support the person.
What are the highs and lows of mental health nursing?
Lows can be experienced when you are working with someone who is very distressed and unwell and, as a nurse, it can be very upsetting to see someone in so much pain and be unable to take all the pain away. But I would also say that the lows in this profession can vary depending on the nurse as we all experience these things differently and cope differently.
The highs can also vary. Some that come to mind is when you have been working with someone who has been so distressed they cannot speak (and all you can do is sit with them and share their space) then the day comes when they trust you enough to speak to you. Or it is someone you have only just met saying ‘thank you for listening’. But the biggest is probably seeing someone you have cared for over a long period of time being discharged because they no longer need your help.
What’s the best part of being a mental health nurse?
This will be different for every mental health nurse. It’s about discovering which bit gives you the most satisfaction. For me it is knowing that, if nothing else, I can make someone's day or life a little better simply by being there and listening.
Nursing Theory. Humanistic model. https://nursing-theory.org/theories-and-models/humanistic-model.php
Ellie Gordon, is a senior nurse, learning disability and mental health, National Nursing and Midwifery Directorate, Health Education England