Author: Judy Cooper and Dean Malpass
If you are drawn to helping and supporting people you may want to consider a career as a mental health nurse. However, you may be uncertain about what the role entails. This article aims to provide you with insight into this branch of nursing and answer the most common questions you may have.
Mental health nurses provide care and treatment for those with mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression, schizophrenia or eating disorders.
As part of a team, they develop and deliver care plans in partnership with patients and empower them to manage their future mental health. This is done using a combination of medication and psychological approaches. They also support patients through crisis episodes.
Mental health nurses play a key role in academia, research, public health, health and social care commissioning, and within the Department of Health and Social Care.
A typical week
There is no such thing as a typical week as the role of a mental health nurse is perhaps one of the most diverse and varied within nursing.
Roles can depend on the specific experience, skills, and the make-up of the multidisciplinary team that an individual nurse is part of, as well as the context of the care setting, for example remote, community or acute setting.
These teams can include GPs, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, and other various mental health professionals.
Some typical responsibilities can include:
Carrying out patient assessments to identify risks such as suicide or aggression and working with individual patients to reduce them
Administering medication and monitoring for side effects
Monitoring physical health and well-being such as blood pressure, pulse and temperature etc
Developing care plans as a structured course of action/treatment involving family members, carers and other health professionals
Helping patients, carers and families understand more about the condition and strategies to help, referring to other professionals and services when appropriate.
De-escalating distressed patients using verbal and non-verbal skills and finding ways to reduce and relieve stress
Managing incidents and patients during episodes of crisis
Preparing the correct care documentation, including legal documentation, for patients who may be subject to elements of the Mental Health Act
Leading teams or projects focused on service and quality improvement initiatives
Teaching and supervising students
Contributing to local and national policy.
The route to becoming a mental health nurse
The most common path to entry is by completing a mental health nursing degree. To be accepted you will typically need five GCSEs at grade 4/C plus two A levels or equivalent and undergo an interview.
If you don’t have these qualifications, you can undertake a foundation course, a programme which prepares you for the degree course. The foundation course may also incorporate a generalist nurse associate programme, allowing you to practise as a nursing associate (support nurse) on completion.
If you are already a registered general nurse you can undertake an accelerated 18-24-month mental health nursing conversion course and ensure you meet its prior learning requirements. You may also be eligible for financial support through the NHS Learning Support Fund.
There are also a range of nursing apprenticeships including degree apprenticeships. Whatever route you take, if you pass through the training successfully, you will register your qualification with the Nursing and Midwifery Council, the regulator for nurses (on its mental health nursing register).
Mental health nurses tend to specialise in terms of the types of patients/service users they work most closely with, such as older adults, people with eating disorders, or children and adolescents with mental health disorders. They could also work within substance misuse, forensic mental health or learning disabilities.
They work in a variety of settings, including community mental health teams, outpatient clinics, acute mental health hospitals, GP surgeries, residential homes, prisons or secure children’s homes.
Mental health nurses must provide care and treatment in the least restrictive way possible. This means that they must have a strong working grasp of Human Rights Law, Mental Health and Mental Capacity Law, as well as nursing ethics.
Mental health nurses are in high demand across the world. They tend to progress their careers by specialising or moving into more managerial positions.
Within the discipline you can progress to become an advanced nurse practitioner, a nurse manager or nurse consultant. These senior positions require further postgraduate qualifications — often at Master’s level — and may mean that you would do less hands-on nursing.
With additional training, mental health nurses can also become ‘approved mental health practitioners’ - responsible for carrying out ‘best-interests assessments’ of people under the Mental Health Act and deciding if they need to be ‘sectioned’ or admitted to hospital on grounds of risk.
Mental health nurses can also complete training to become prescribers and they can also gain ‘approved clinician’ status within the Mental Health Act 1983, affording them additional decision making powers.
The NHS is the largest employer of mental health nurses in the UK but there are increasing opportunities in the private and independent sectors.
Fully qualified mental health nurses start on salaries of £28,407 rising to £34,581 on Band 5 of the Agenda for Change pay rates for a 37.5 hour week (2023-24 pay scales). Hours tend to be shift patterns including evenings, weekends and bank holidays or on-call shifts.
More experienced nurses will work at Band 6 or 7 with salaries ranging from £35,392 to £50,056.
More senior or leadership positions, such as nurse consultant, will see salaries start on Band 8a ranging from £50,952 – 57,349. A London weighting can add an additional 5-20% onto a salary.
Some nurses hold senior positions within health and social care organisations with salaries between £80,000 and £200,000. There is also a growing network of entrepreneurs who are mental health nurses that have started businesses.
A key part of the role is building therapeutic relationships with people so look for ways that you can demonstrate you have good communication skills, empathy and patience.
Practical experience is key. If you do not have this, consider doing some voluntary work or support roles in the specialist area you are applying for.
Qualities required in the job
Mental health nurses need excellent observational skills to assess patients, look for signs of tension or anxiety and be able to think quickly in unpredictable and sometimes violent situations. You’lll also need a non-judgemental attitude.
Resources and further reading
- Health Education England: Mental Health Nursing Competence and Career Framework
- RCN Mental Health Forum https://www.rcn.org.uk/Get-Involved/Forums/Mental-Health-Forum
- NHS Health Careers – Mental Health nursing https://www.healthcareers.nhs.uk/explore-roles/nursing/roles-nursing/mental-health-nurse
- NHS England Mental Health Nursing https://www.healthcareers.nhs.uk/explore-roles/nursing/roles-nursing/mental-health-nurse
- My Mental Health Nursing 'Patchwork' Career From Clinician To Leader https://healthjobs.bmj.com/article/mental-health-nursing-patchwork-career
- Top Tips When Applying For Mental Health Jobs https://healthjobs.bmj.com/article/top-tips-when-applying-for-mental-health-jobs