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How to get into mental health nursing: Advice from NHS team members

Mental health nursing is a rewarding career, but how do you get your foot in the door? As part of our collaboration with the We are the NHS campaign, we spoke to three NHS mental health nurses to get some advice.

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Thanks to shifting cultural attitudes, and our developing understanding of how the brain works, we’re able to provide a better standard of mental healthcare than ever before. Mental health nurses are at this medical frontline, spending the most face-to-face time with patients, and supporting them in their time of need.

But there’s still work to be done. As mentioned in our blog for World Mental Health Day, around 10% of the global population is living with some form of mental health condition. The good news is that NHS England is set to increase annual funding for mental health services by £2.3 billion per year. So if you’re interested in becoming a mental health nurse, how might you look to start your journey on this fulfilling career path, and what could your day-to-day job look like? 

This article is part of our collaboration with the We are the NHS campaign, so we spoke to three mental health nurses to get their thoughts on the subject. They are Andrew Halligan of the North Liverpool Community Mental Health team, Debbie Kay, a mental health nurse for the NHS in Sheffield, and Joanne Foster, a senior mental health nurse for the NHS in Derbyshire.

What is a mental health nurse?

A mental health nurse supports the recovery of mental health patients. They can work in a range of settings, including within the NHS and the private sector. Mental health nurses can be based in a specialised psychiatric ward, a residential setting or in the community.

What does a mental health nurse do?

As a mental health nurse, you’ll work closely with other medical professionals, therapists and social workers. It’s the job of a mental health nurse to develop relationships with patients and their family members to support their recovery. 

A strength of mental health nurses is their ability to listen to and support patients while spotting particular problems that might need specific treatments (anxiety, depression, or addictive behaviours, to name a few). 

Mental health patients can sometimes struggle to talk about how they feel, so an empathetic, knowledgeable nurse is invaluable. Being able to build trust is incredibly important, so people with strong social skills are a good match for this type of work.

Mental health nurse job demand

In the UK in 2021, there were around 43,000 mental health nursing staff, which falls short of the targets set in 2017 and 2019. So, it’s clear that there aren’t enough mental health nurses to meet the demand. There is a real need for more mental health nurses throughout the NHS, so a career in this field will give you plenty of opportunities for exciting roles.

Mental health first aid

It’s important for mental health nurses to be able to administer mental health first aid. This is a set of interventions designed to minimise the effects of PTSD. As explored in our article on the impact of trauma on mental health, a stressful situation can lead to lasting problems and mental health first aid can step in at a moment of crisis to support someone.

The UK Health Security Agency (or UKHSA) delivers a course on Psychological First Aid for young people. It’s produced in collaboration with Public Health England, based on the guidance of the UN and WHO. It’s a great course for those in paediatric roles, or those who work with children and teenagers in crisis.

How to become a mental health nurse

Once you’ve decided that a career in mental health nursing is right for you, you’ll need to get the right qualifications. However, there are certain qualities you need to have in this career, as well as the right training.

Ideal qualities of a mental health nurse

With help from Andrew, Debbie and Joanne, we’ve created a list of ideal qualities a mental health nurse should have. Everyone will have their own individual personality, but certain qualities will ensure that you’re right for the job and your patients receive the best care. 

  • Resilience. “You may well get called names, but you can’t take it personally. It’s someone reacting to their own frustrations and circumstances, and you’re their focus.” – Debbie
  • A sense of humour. “Being able to laugh at often stressful situations helps to diffuse the situation and help us cope with it.” – Joanne
  • Excellent listening skills. “Don’t just nod your head, but HEAR what someone is actually saying and treat them with the compassion and care you would give to the person closest to you in the world.” – Debbie
  • Passion and drive. “Try to have extra interests or areas of practice that excite you.” – Debbie
  • Strong communication skills. “To be warm and engaging while showing real empathy to each individual’s circumstances is far more important than any academic skills that may be asked of you.” – Andrew
  • Versatility and flexibility. “Think outside the box. Question and reflect on what you do and why you are doing it”. – Debbie
  • Self-awareness. “A good trait is an awareness of one’s own anxiety levels and what helps you as an individual when you feel that you are getting stressed.” – Joanne
  • Being a good role model. “You don’t have to be perfect and aloof, but by attempting to practice what we preach, we can better understand the barriers and issues that people face in their recovery.” – Debbie

What qualifications do you need to become a mental health nurse?

The most popular route into nursing is a university degree. Being accepted into the right university means having the right qualifications from high school, usually five GCSEs of grade C (or 4) or higher and a handful of A-levels. The specific requirements will vary from university to university, so it’s good to check with the place you’d like to study. 

If you’ve already got a degree, a postgraduate qualification can fast-track you into the profession. There’s also the option to train as a nursing apprentice. 

Certain employers will pay for you to learn on the job as a nursing associate. This is a junior role which provides support to qualified mental health nurses. It can be an attractive route since you’ll have the opportunity to learn through practice.

Find out more on the NHS careers page for mental health nursing.

Careers in mental health nursing

So, you’re considering a career as a mental health nurse. You’ll need to choose between working in the public or private sectors, so we’ll go into some more detail below.

Working for the NHS

The NHS is the largest employer in Europe, bringing together 1.3 million staff. Working in the NHS means you’ll have plenty of ways to further your career and branch out in an unexpected direction. As a valued member of the organisation, your job security is great, too.

You can expect to work long hours, but if you’re able to adapt to the environment, you may well find yourself thriving. As an NHS worker, you’ll also be entitled to a few unique perks and privileges including a generous pension and Blue Light discount card.

Andrew, a mental health nurse for the NHS, spoke to us about his experience working in this role. He said, “Many nurses put a lot of importance on their hobbies outside of work to help ‘turn off’ after a stressful or hard day but there is also a lot of really good staff support available. This includes staff coaching, counselling, CBT, and mindfulness sessions to help deal with any stress, anxiety or overwhelming situations.” 

He continued, “As a mental health nurse, you are really well looked after and the NHS encourages many activities that build resilience inside and outside of work; enabling you to thrive in the face of stressful situations at work, and in life in general.”

Working privately as a mental health nurse

Private healthcare tends to be where the money is. Patients who want to avoid going through the NHS can pay a premium to secure the best possible care, and to avoid potential queues. Of course, fewer patients have the means to do this and working in the private sector usually means a smaller caseload.

In practice, most people who work in private healthcare will have to cut their teeth in the public sector first. Private companies are less interested in new recruits and tend to look for experienced professionals.

Differences between private and public care

The major differences between private and public care come down to workload, salary, and opportunities to progress. You’ll have more options in the NHS, especially to begin with. But with so many private companies and charities providing mental health services, you might be able to choose between multiple providers. Some nurses might also choose to work for the NHS for ethical reasons – everyone deserves the best care possible, regardless of their financial circumstances.

The opportunities and challenges of being a mental health nurse

Wondering whether this career is right for you? NHS mental health nurses, Andrew, Debbie and Joanne, spoke to us about the greatest opportunities and challenges that come with the job.

Before going into it, we have a piece of advice from Debbie. She says, “With each challenge comes an opportunity. I have only worked in the NHS, not the private sector, but one thing is certain – even when you’ve got used to a situation, it will change and evolve. There are always changes, so learn to adapt, be brave, and voice any concerns you may have.”

Mental health nursing opportunities

We’ll start by discussing some of the best parts of being a mental health nurse, as told by NHS staff themselves. 

1. Making a positive difference

If you want to have a real impact on people’s lives, this might be the job for you. Andrew told us, “Working with really complex patients in situations you may never have thought were possible can be a big challenge, and it can feel daunting at times, but I would recommend mental health nursing to anyone. When you see one of your patients in full recovery and living an independent, happy life, through positive changes that your work has directly influenced, it can be very rewarding.”

Joanne shares a similar experience to Andrew, telling us, “The fact that you do see most patients get better is the biggest reward of all.  The relationships we share with our patients, the laughs, and seeing people at their most difficult times is both rewarding and inspiring.”

2. Great job variety

No day is likely to be the same in this field. As Andrew told us, mental health nurses work with all age groups, with a huge range of different struggles. He said, “One day you can be helping someone suffering with severe mental health issues through medication reviews and psychological therapies. Other days, you may be supporting patients with their housing, education, employment, homelessness and drug support.”

Debbie also found the broad range of placements exciting, and useful to find her ideal specialism. She says, “Hold in your head and thoughts the supervisors and nurses that have inspired you, then Iearn from them and apply yourself.”

3. Collaboration and teamwork

Like working in a team? You’re in luck. Andrew says, “There is a lot of collaborative working with colleagues such as nurses in the team, consultant psychiatrists, psychologists, employment officers, social workers, carers, police and forensic teams who all work together each day to find the right support for each individual patient.”

Mental health nursing challenges

Despite the many advantages and opportunities in this role, there are definitely some challenges to think about and consider.

1. Experiencing burnout

Joanne cites COVID-19 as making burnout worse in recent years and Debbie says burnout is one of the biggest challenges of the job. This has been caused by factors such as high caseloads, high admissions rates and a need for more staff. Debbie says “If you notice that the disadvantages to a job are starting to outweigh what you liked about the job, is there anything you can change?” 

She also recommends that mental health nurses reflect on why they first entered the profession in order to ride out the hard times, saying: “Think about what brought you to the job in the first place.” 

2. Finding the job difficult job at times

It’s pretty much guaranteed that working as a mental health nurse won’t be an easy job. Joanne finds that there are often many expectations and demands that don’t align with your own, particularly when working on an inpatient ward. Debbie also suggests that nurses don’t always choose their caseloads. However, she says “You will only get out what you put into a job.”

3. Protecting your own mental health

As you can imagine, you need to be strong to work on a mental health ward, and this involves taking great care to look after your own health and wellbeing

Joanne finds that the best thing to do to protect your own mental health is to share the load with your team and build good working relationships with your colleagues. She says, “This really helps prevent the feeling of being alone and rather promotes the feeling that we have each other and we are in it together.”

Debbie also has some top tips for looking after yourself:

  • Have someone you trust and can confide in at work and at home
  • Learn to drop your own personal troubles, worries, and concerns at the workplace door
  • Learn to care without caring too much – it’s important to maintain boundaries
  • Do what you enjoy and make the time for this. My escapes include mindfulness, spending time with family, enjoying my dog and running (albeit slowly)
  • Reflect on your own practice. Be honest with this try and look at situations from other people’s perspectives
  • Work with your team – we’re all there to help and support each other

Further learning as a mental health nurse

Taking online mental health courses is a great way to further your understanding of complex topics and prepare for a career in mental health nursing. There are plenty of courses to choose from and some address mental health broadly, some target age, while others focus on specific conditions. 

For example, with the right knowledge of drug and alcohol addiction and how it works, mental health nurses can help users to break the cycle and reclaim control of their lives. 

Here are some of our best online courses for further training as a mental health nurse:

An effective mental health nurse isn’t just concerned with the wellbeing of others, but with their own, too. In another article, we’ve run through several courses and tips for taking care of your mental wellbeing at work, alongside our piece on the signs of depression.

Final thoughts

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of mental health nursing and whether it’s the right career for you. As Andrew, Debbie, and Joanne have all said, it’s a challenging but immensely rewarding job. If you’ve been inspired, it’s time to start setting yourself up for success in the field.

With the help of short courses on Futurelearn, you’ll be able to pick up new skills quickly and address any weaknesses in your overall skillset. The result? You’ll be a better mental health nurse, and probably a better person, too!

Find out more about how your work can change lives on the We are the NHS page.

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