Mental health nursing is an extremely rewarding career choice. Forget all the stereotypes about straitjackets and Victorian asylums; modern mental health nursing focuses on helping and supporting people from all walks of life with a variety of ‘common’ mental health disorders (such as anxiety and depression) as well as more serious disorders such as drug and alcohol problems, suicidal feelings, psychosis, bipolar disorder and dementia. They also play a key role in promoting mental health and well-being among the public and preventing mental health problems occurring in the first place.
Mental health nurses don’t just work on mental health wards in hospitals (though many do); they work in schools and colleges, the community, workplaces, GP practices, prisons and other secure facilities, and in A&E and other general hospital settings. In most of these settings, mental health nurses will be doing something different every day, be it working directly with service users, working with service users’ families, attending team meetings with other health and social care professionals, training junior members of staff or taking part in research or even running research projects.
Using highly-developed communication and interpersonal skills, mental health nurses support and help people with mental health problems through a variety of methods that include ‘talking’ and other psychological therapies, medication management, physical health advice, skills training and education. Most of this support and help is ‘co-produced’ (delivered in conjunction) with service users and their families. They work across the lifespan: with women during pregnancy (often in conjunction with midwives), children and young people, young adults, adults of working age and older people.
How do I become a registered mental health nurse?
You need to undertake a degree at one of the more than 60 UK universities that run mental health nursing degree courses. Courses can be found via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS.
There are also a small number of universities, working in partnership with employers, who are offering nursing degree apprenticeships. With an apprenticeship, you are employed by a host organisation to work as a student nurse while at the same time studying for a nursing degree. The entry qualifications are the same as for a standard, ‘on-campus’ nursing degree. The advantages of a nursing apprenticeship are that you receive a salary during your studies, pay no tuition fees (the employer pays via the apprenticeship levy) and you may feel a greater sense of ‘belongingness’ to the host healthcare provider/employer. Disadvantages are that it takes longer than the standard on-campus degree (typically 4+ years), you will miss out on the typical on-campus student experiences, and you may not experience the variety of placement providers that standard three-year, on-campus nursing degree students experience.
How long does it take?
Normally, a minimum of three years to obtain a Bachelors’ degree in mental health nursing though, in Scotland, there are four year options and some universities offer shortened (18 months – 2 years) courses for people who already have a degree. Courses are 50% university-based and 50% in clinical and practice settings.
As mentioned above, the apprenticeship route is longer, typically four or more years.
What qualifications do I need?
These vary from university to university but typically three A levels or equivalent. Most universities want their mental health nursing students to come from a wide variety of backgrounds so there are lots of different qualifications that are eligible. You will need a good level of numeracy and literacy (this is a Nursing & Midwifery Council requirement) which usually means a GCSE pass in Maths and English.
Do I need to have voluntary or work experience in a mental health setting to apply?
No, but anything that demonstrates that you understand how modern mental health services operate or what it’s like to experience mental health problems will enhance your application. This could include a period of voluntary or work experience; it could also include recovering from mental health problems yourself or caring for a relative or close friend with mental health problems.
What are the career prospects for mental health nurses?
Mental health nurses are in short supply across the UK and you should have little difficulty finding permanent employment once you qualify as a mental health nurse. While the NHS employs the majority of mental health nurses, there is a high demand for mental health nurses from many other public, private and charitable (‘third sector’) employers. Further specialist qualifications (especially at Masters and Doctoral level) can lead to higher grades in clinical practice or management or access to other areas of practice such as research or clinical or academic teaching.
I’m interested, where can I get further information?
Almost all of the universities offering mental health nursing will have open days so check out their websites and/or contact their admissions or recruitment departments.
NHS Health Education England has some specific information on mental health nursing.
The Foundation of Nursing Studies’ Playing Our Part report outlines what modern mental health nurses currently do and what they might be doing in the future.
Several members of MHNAUK have written/edited introductory textbooks in mental health nursing that will give you some insights into modern mental health nursing; some of the more recent ones are listed below:
- Karen Wright and Mick McKeown from the University of Central Lancashire: Wright K & McKeown M (Eds.) (2018) Essentials of Mental Health Nursing. London: Sage.
- Andrew Clifton from De Montfort University, Steve Hemmingway from the University of Huddersfield, and Anne Felton and Gemma Stacey from the University of Nottingham: Clifton A, Hemmingway S, Felton A & Stacey G (Eds.) (2017) Fundamentals of Mental Health Nursing: An Essential Guide for Nursing and Healthcare Students. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Mary Chambers from Kingston and St Georges: Chambers M (Ed.) (2017) Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing: The Craft of Caring, 3rd edition. Abingdon: Routledge.
- Nicola Evans and Ben Hannigan from Cardiff University: Evans N & Hannigan B (Eds.) (2016) Therapeutic Skills for Mental Health Nurses. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Grahame Smith from Liverpool John Moores University: Smith G (2014). Mental Heath Nursing at a Glance. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Ian Norman from Kings College London and Ian Ryrie: Norman I & Ryrie I (Eds.) (2013). The Art And Science Of Mental Health Nursing: Principles And Practice, 3rd edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
- Steven Pryjmachuk from the University of Manchester: Pryjmachuk S (Ed.) (2011) Mental Health Nursing: An Evidence Based Introduction. London: Sage. [Chapter 1 is available free from the link.]
- Patrick Callaghan from London South Bank University (formerly the University of Nottingham) with former MHNAUK colleagues John Playle and Linda Cooper: Callaghan P, Playle J & Cooper L (Eds.) (2009) Mental Health Nursing Skills. Oxford: OUP.
- Vicky Clarke and Andrew Walsh from Birmingham City University: Clarke V & Walsh A (Eds. ) (2009) Fundamentals of Mental Health Nursing. Oxford: OUP. [Chapter 4 is available free from the link.]