As a mental health nurse you'll play an important role helping patients and will need to show empathy along with excellent observational skills

Mental health nurses provide support to people suffering from various mental health conditions. The work involves helping the patient to recover from their illness or to come to terms with it in order to lead a positive life.

You can specialise in working with children or older people, or in a specific area such as eating disorders. Work is often carried out in multidisciplinary teams, liaising with psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, GPs, social workers and other health professionals.

As a registered mental health nurse (RMN), you may work with patients in a variety of settings including:

  • their own homes;
  • community healthcare centres;
  • hospital outpatients departments;
  • specialist units;
  • secure residential units.

Responsibilities

As a mental health nurse, your exact work will depend on the setting and specialist group you work with, but in general you'll be involved in:

  • assessing and talking to patients about their problems and discussing the best way to plan and deliver their care;
  • building relationships with patients to encourage trust, while listening to and interpreting their needs and concerns;
  • ensuring the correct administration of medication, including injections, and monitoring the results of treatment;
  • responding to distressed patients in a non-threatening manner and attempting to understand the source of distress;
  • applying 'de-escalation' techniques to help people manage their emotions and behaviour;
  • preparing and participating in group and/or one-to-one therapy sessions, both individually and with other health professionals;
  • providing evidence-based individual therapy, such as cognitive behaviour therapy for depression and anxiety;
  • organising social events aimed at developing patients' social skills and helping to reduce feelings of isolation;
  • preparing and maintaining patient records and producing care plans and risk assessments;
  • ensuring that the legal requirements appropriate to a particular setting or group of patients are observed;
  • working with patients' families and carers, helping to educate them and the patient about their mental health problems.

In the community, the role may also involve:

  • visiting patients in their home to monitor progress and carrying out risk assessments with regard to their safety and welfare;
  • liaising with patients, relatives and fellow professionals in the community treatment team and attending regular meetings to review and monitor patients' care plans;
  • identifying whether and when patients are at risk of harming themselves or others.

Salary

  • The NHS pay structure, Agenda for Change, has clearly defined pay bands for nurses. Salaries for newly qualified nurses range from £21,692 to £28,180 (Band 5).
  • As you progress, you'll work up through the bands. Most experienced nurses work at Band 6 or 7 with salaries ranging from £26,041 to £40,964.
  • One of the highest paid positions in nursing is as a nurse consultant where salaries start on Band 8a, which ranges from £39,632 to £47,559.
  • Extra allowances of 5% to 20% are payable in the London area, depending on the proximity to inner London.

Income data from Health Careers. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Working hours are typically 37.5 hours per week. This may include evenings, weekends and bank holidays. In residential and hospital settings, 24-hour care is usually required, meaning shift work is typical.

Nurses working in the community are more likely to have regular hours, although some carry out on-call duties for emergency situations.

What to expect

  • The vast majority of mental healthcare is now community based, with some functions provided by healthcare or social care assistants.
  • Vacancies occur throughout the UK, particularly in the main urban areas. Specialties, such as child and adolescent mental health services and inpatient services, sometimes experience skills shortages.
  • A positive work/life balance may be difficult to maintain due to the level of personal commitment and working patterns required. There is also a risk of violence associated with mental health that needs to be considered, but you will be taught skills to identify the build-up of tension and to be able to diffuse it.
  • The need for overnight absence from home is dependent on the nature of the post and shift patterns.
  • Travel during the working day is common for community psychiatric nurses (CPNs).

Qualifications

To work as a mental health nurse in the UK, you need to be registered with the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC). To be eligible to register you must complete an accepted pre-registration nursing programme, run at an NMC approved educational institution (AEI). The nursing programmes can be taken in four disciplines including:

  • adult;
  • children;
  • learning disability;
  • mental health.

Courses typically last three years, with the first year spent studying common foundation modules that cover all branches of nursing and the last two specialising in your chosen area. Half of the programme is based in clinical practice, giving you direct experience of working with patients and families.

You may be able to get accreditation of prior learning (APL) if you have a degree in another health-related subject, such as life and medical science, social work or psychology. Up to 50% of the course can be accredited in this way, meaning it will be shorter than the standard three years.

Part-time courses are available if you want to work and study at the same time. These usually take five to six years to complete. If you're working in the NHS you may get support from your employer and help with funding and study leave. Details of all accepted programmes can be found at NMC Approved Programmes.

The NMC states that all nurses must meet their requirements of good health and good character. You'll also need to have a criminal records check, although having a criminal conviction or caution won't automatically bar you from working in the NHS.

The NHS provides funding to cover tuition fees for students who are UK residents. Check with your chosen institution to find out if your course is eligible for funding. You may also be entitled to a bursary to help with living costs. More information can be found at NHS Student Bursaries.

For bursary information if you are attending courses in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland see:

Skills

You will need to show:

  • excellent observational skills to assess patients and look out for signs of tension or anxiety;
  • strength, stamina and physical fitness particularly if working in a hospital or secure residential unit;
  • excellent communication skills for dealing with the patients and their families;
  • the ability to stay calm and think quickly in challenging circumstances;
  • emotional resilience and a non-judgemental approach;
  • skill in decision making and time and stress management;
  • empathy with patients and the situation they're in;
  • the ability to help others overcome the social stigma related to mental health.

Work experience

Work experience will always be of use when applying for courses or jobs to show your interest and dedication to the profession. Voluntary work in a hospital or with a mental health charity, or community work will all be beneficial. Any other work experience that involves caring for others will also help.

Employers

The NHS employs the majority of mental health nurses. While some work is carried out in mental health and secure hospitals, the majority is based in the community in a variety of settings including:

  • community mental health centres;
  • residential homes and community units for the elderly;
  • family therapy, assessment and rehabilitation units;
  • acute wards and outpatient departments in general hospitals;
  • private clinics.

Some mental health nurses also work in special units within prisons or for telephone helplines. Outside the NHS, leading employers include:

  • the large private healthcare companies, such as BUPA and the General Healthcare Group;
  • mental health charities;
  • the armed forces.

Some projects are jointly run by the NHS in partnership with social services, local authority departments or other agencies. Many posts offer the chance to work in a more specialist role with a particular group of clients or involving those with a specific mental health condition.

Look for job vacancies at:

You could also check the websites of medical charities and private healthcare companies.

Specialist recruitment agencies, such as Pulse, often handle vacancies. For contact details of various consultancies try the Nursing Agencies List.

Professional development

Your registration with the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) must be renewed every three years. To do this you need to show you have met revalidation requirements. These include completing 450 practice hours within the three years, which can be made up of providing care to patients, managing teams, teaching others or running a care service.

You'll also need to have done 35 hours of continuing professional development (CPD), including 20 hours of participatory learning, where you've interacted with at least one other professional. It can include attending conferences, training courses and events.

In addition, you'll also need to submit five pieces of practice-related feedback, five written reflective accounts, a reflective discussion and a health and character declaration, as well as having a professional indemnity arrangement. Find out more at NMC Revalidation.

In Scotland, all newly qualified nurses are entitled to participate in Flying Start NHS. This is a personal development programme aimed at building your confidence and supporting your learning in your first year of practice.

Post-registration specialist practitioner courses are available and usually last for one academic year, although some can be completed in a shorter time if credit is given for prior learning and experience. Courses cover topics such as clinical practice development and leadership.

Masters courses are also available and nurses are encouraged to continue with their education and development.

Career prospects

Career progression may involve you developing a specialism in an area such as alcohol or substance misuse, forensic psychology, psychotherapeutic interventions or working with offenders or children and young people.

There are also opportunities to move into educational roles, such as:

  • mentor for newly qualified staff;
  • lecturer;
  • lecturer practitioner - continuing to deliver care to patients;
  • researcher - playing a key role in ensuring that the nursing profession is enhanced and informed by specialist knowledge.

It's possible to join a unit or trust management team in an advisory or executive capacity, making decisions that directly affect patient or client welfare, including financial and staffing matters. In hospitals and residential provision, you can progress to posts such as nurse manager or nurse consultant, which may also open up opportunities to work in a more specialist role. For these positions, you're likely to need further qualifications, possibly to Masters level, plus relevant experience. In some cases, the more senior posts have less hands-on nursing responsibilities.

There are increasing opportunities in the private and independent healthcare sectors, or you may choose to move into roles in social services, the prison service, voluntary organisations, or residential nursing homes. There are also a variety of opportunities overseas for qualified and experienced UK nurses in a range of countries.