As a mental health nurse you'll need to show empathy along with excellent observational skills

As a mental health nurse, you'll provide support to people living with various mental health conditions. This can involve 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 certain groups, such as 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.

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, you'll need to:

  • assess and talk to patients about their problems and discuss the best way to plan and deliver their care
  • build relationships with patients to encourage trust, while listening to and interpreting their needs and concerns
  • ensure the correct administration of medication, including injections, and monitor the results of treatment
  • respond to distressed patients in a non-threatening manner and attempt to understand the source of their discomfort
  • help patients manage their emotions through de-escalation techniques
  • prepare and participate in group and/or one-to-one therapy sessions, both individually and with other health professionals
  • provide evidence-based individual therapy, such as cognitive behaviour therapy for depression and anxiety
  • organise social events aimed at developing patients' social skills and help to reduce their feelings of isolation
  • prepare and maintain patient records and produce care plans and risk assessments
  • make sure that the legal requirements appropriate to a particular setting or group of patients are observed
  • work with patients' families and carers, to help to educate them and the patient about their mental health problems.

If you work in the community, you may also need to:

  • visit patients in their home to monitor progress and carry out risk assessments with regard to their safety and welfare
  • liaise with patients, relatives and fellow professionals in the community treatment team and attend regular meetings to review and monitor patients' care plans
  • identify whether/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 £22,128 to £28,746 (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 £26,565 to £41,787.
  • One of the highest paid positions in nursing is as a nurse consultant, where salaries start on Band 8a ranging from £40,428 to £48,514.
  • Extra allowances of 5% to 20% are payable in the London area, depending on your proximity to inner London.

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

Working hours

You'll typically work 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 likely.

If you work in the community you're more likely to have regular hours, although you may need to 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's also a risk of violence associated with mental health that needs to be considered, but you'll be taught skills to identify and diffuse building tension.
  • 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).

Nursing programmes can be taken in four disciplines, including:

  • adult
  • children
  • learning disability
  • mental health.

A small number of institutions offer dual field degrees, allowing you to study in two of the above areas.

Courses typically last three years (four for dual field), 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 experiential learning (APEL) if you have practice-based learning or a degree in another health-related subject, such as life and medical science, social work or psychology. Having APEL may shorten your course to two years, but as this is at the discretion of individual institutions it's always best to check.

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.

Nursing degree apprenticeships have recently been developed and these offer a more flexible route to becoming a nurse. You'll work for an NHS employer as a nursing degree apprentice and will be released for part-time study at a university. Training takes place in a range of practice settings.

Degree apprenticeships typically take four years to complete and the cost is covered by your employer. You may be able to do it in a shorter length of time if you have APEL.

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 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 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. Community work, or voluntary work in a hospital or with a mental health charity, 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.

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 NMC must be renewed every three years. To do this you need to show you have met revalidation requirements within that time, including completing 450 practice hours, 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.

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:

  • lecturer
  • lecturer practitioner - continuing to deliver care to patients
  • mentor for newly qualified staff
  • 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.