Career profile: the psychiatric or mental health nurse

Career profile: the psychiatric or mental health nurse

This rewarding branch of nursing requires skilled problem solvers with an eye for detail, excellent communication skills and a great deal of empathy. We look at what it takes to be a mental health nurse.

Mental health care in the UK

The NHS philosophy of mental health care in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is to provide treatment and care within the least restrictive environment possible. Many people experiencing mental health conditions engage with community mental health services as an outpatient while still living at home. Others might require a short spell as an inpatient in hospital to establish their treatment or stabilise their condition before they are discharged again. People usually admit themselves to hospital voluntarily or informally. Less commonly, there can also be circumstances where people need to be detained under the Mental Health Act. Mental health nurses work across all of these contexts.

What do mental health nurses do?

The job of an NHS mental health nurse (also known as a psychiatric nurse) is to promote and support people’s recovery from mental illnesses, helping them to live independent and fulfilling lives. Mental health/psychiatric nurses work in the community, visiting people’s homes, and can be based in hospitals on a psychiatric ward or specialist unit. They work closely with patients’ families and as part of a multidisciplinary team of other health professionals, which could include:

  • GPs
  • psychologists
  • social workers
  • psychiatrists
  • occupational therapists
  • arts therapists
  • healthcare assistants.

Together, they help people experiencing mental health problems to manage their health with appropriate, evidence-based care plans and get the best possible outcomes.

Some of an NHS mental health nurse’s duties and responsibilities include:

  • carrying out assessments by talking to patients about their problems and devising appropriate treatment plans, such as interventions, medicines or talking therapies
  • helping people take their medication correctly, and monitoring how well they are working for the patient
  • helping patients manage their emotions through self-care de-escalation techniques
  • advising on relevant therapies or social activities
  • preparing and carrying out group or one-to-one therapy sessions.

What about working patterns? “Mental health nurses work in hospital and community settings and generally work shifts over seven days of the week, including day and night duty and on-call rotas. Some 60% of nurses work 12-hour shifts, usually from 7am to 7pm, or 7pm to 7am. There are also options to work more flexibly by joining staff ‘banks’ operated by NHS Professionals and NHS Trusts themselves,” according to the NHS

Some must-have qualities for mental health nurses

What does it take to be a good mental health nurse? Here are some of the personal attributes that the job requires:

Problem-solving skills

Psychiatric-mental health nurses require the ability to think critically and make sound decisions, even when they are under a great deal of pressure – such as in emergencies, or when there are unforeseen complications.

Being a ‘people person’

Shrinking violets need not apply. Mental health nurses need to be able to build effective, trusting relationships rapidly with both people experiencing mental illness and their families and carers, so they must have top notch social skills and the ability to put people at their ease.

Clear communication

Being able to communicate well to explain a person’s situation to them and the care they need is an essential skill for mental health nurses.

“Having effective communication skills is incredibly important in psychiatric nursing. You must communicate complex medical information to patients, families and other healthcare professionals. Effective communication lets you empathise with and understand your patient's needs and emotions,” explains a profile of mental health nursing on the Indeed careers website.

An eye for the details

Being detail-oriented is a must for accurately administering medication, monitoring patient progress and tracking potential side effects. Mental health nurses must also have an awareness of the legal context of their work. According to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC)’s required competencies for anyone wishing to practice as a mental health nurse in the UK, “mental health nurses must understand and apply current legislation to all service users, paying special attention to the protection of vulnerable people, including those with complex mental health needs arising from ageing, cognitive impairment, long-term conditions and those approaching the end of life.”

Empathetic and unflappable

Emotional intelligence and empathy are critical for psychiatric/mental health nurses to understand and care for patients, whether it is eating disorders in young people or helping an elderly patient with psychosis. For example they must be able to identify when someone is at risk of self-harm, or harming others, carrying out risk assessments where necessary. The job can involve managing challenging behaviours or distressing situations, so a skilled mental health nurse will be able to remain calm and give a person who is struggling with mental health issues the most appropriate care.

What’s the career route to becoming a mental health nurse?

Typical requirements are a minimum of five GCSEs at grade 4/C or above and two A levels or equivalent level 3 qualifications, such as a T level or BTEC for an undergraduate degree. Those who already have a degree may be able to study for a postgraduate qualification. There are broadly three nursing career routes to becoming a mental health nurse:

University: Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC)-approved degrees in mental health nursing are one route into the career. It’s possible to study mental health nursing alongside other areas of nursing, and some students join the second year of a nursing degree if they already have a degree in a health-related subject, psychology, psychiatry, or social work.

Apprenticeships: Those who work in England in a healthcare setting like a hospital  may be able to apply for a Registered Nurse Level 6 Degree Apprenticeship, which takes around 4 years and is a mix of academic study and on-the-job training.

Conversion courses: Registered nurses can take an 18-month mental health nursing conversion course to become a mental health nurse.

A full-time, newly qualified NHS nurse will earn around £28,000 (Band 5 on the NHS Agenda for Change payscale).

“I think what makes mental health nursing special is that it’s all about the relationship with our patients,” says nurse consultant Rikke Albert, from the East London NHS Foundation Trust. “It’s about how we can help that person fully. It’s a whole-person approach, that’s what our training is.”

“Something I love about mental health nursing is that it’s never the same from one day to the next. What more could you want in a job?” she adds. 

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