Mental health nurses work with people suffering from various mental health conditions and their family and carers to offer help and support in dealing with the condition. 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.
The nurses may specialise in working with children or older people, or in a specific area such as eating disorders. Mental health nurses often work 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 or specialist units, or secure residential units.
The work carried out by a mental health nurse can vary depending on the setting and specialist group they are working with. But the role typically consists of:
- caring for patients experiencing acute mental distress or who have an enduring mental illness;
- 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;
- encouraging patients to take part in art, drama or occupational therapy where appropriate;
- organising social events aimed at developing patients' social skills and helping to reduce feelings of isolation;
- preparing and maintaining patient records;
- producing care plans and risk assessments for individual patients;
- 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;
- promoting a 'recovery' based approach to care.
In the community, the role may also involve:
- coordinating the care of patients;
- liaising with patients, relatives and fellow professionals in the community treatment team and attending regular meetings to review and monitor patients' care plans;
- visiting patients in their home to monitor progress and carrying out risk assessments with regard to their safety and welfare;
- assessing patients' behaviour and psychological needs;
- identifying whether and when patients are at risk of harming themselves or others.
Nursing pay scales under the National Health Service (NHS) Agenda for Change are as follows: Band 5 (newly qualified nurse) £21,388 - £27,901; Band 6 (specialist nurse) £25,783 - £34,530; Band 7 (advanced nurse) £30,764 - £40,558; Bands 8 A - C (nurse consultant) £39,239 - £67,805.
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 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.
- It is common for mature graduates to enter nursing (including mental health nursing) and many do so as a second career.
- 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. In spite of widespread 'zero tolerance' policies, there is a risk of exposure to violence by patients in some environments. Paperwork is also on the increase, partly in response to the threat of litigation.
- 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).
A pre-registration nursing degree or diploma that is accredited by the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) is required in order to work as a mental health nurse. These are three-year courses that combine theoretical and practical training and lead to registration with the NMC.
The nursing programmes can be taken in four disciplines:
- children (paediatric);
- learning disability;
- mental health.
Candidates usually need to choose their discipline before beginning the course. The first year of the course is spent studying common foundation modules that cover all branches of nursing. The next two years are then spent specialising in the chosen discipline. Some degree courses may take up to four years to complete.
Part-time courses are available, which take five to six years. These are particularly useful for those who wish to work and study at the same time. If working in the NHS, perhaps at an assistant practitioner level, the candidate will usually get support from the employer and may get help with funding and study leave.
Graduates from a health-related first degree, e.g. biomedical sciences, biology, psychology, etc, may be able to enter a shortened nursing programme that takes two years to complete. Candidates must usually demonstrate an interest in nursing and some experience, such as voluntary work, caring for a relative, etc. Entry requirements vary across institutions and candidates should contact the individual university to find out more details.
A postgraduate qualification is not required to become a mental health nurse. However, postgraduate courses are available after becoming a registered nurse to enable career progression.
Statutory bursaries and tuition fees for degree and diploma nursing programmes are available in each part of the UK. Further information is available from course providers or:
- NHS Student Bursaries - NHS Business Services Authority, for bursaries in England.
- National Leadership and Innovation Agency for Healthcare (Wales)
- Nursing and Midwifery Careers in Northern Ireland - Bursaries
- Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS)
You will need to show:
- strength, stamina and physical fitness;
- excellent communication skills;
- emotional resilience;
- a non-judgemental approach;
- skill in decision making and time and stress management.
The ability to empathise with and show warmth towards the people you are caring for is very important.
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, mental health charity or community work will all be beneficial. Any other work experience that involves caring for others will also help.
The National Health Service (NHS) employs the majority of mental health nurses. While some work in mental health and secure hospitals, the majority work out in the community in a variety of settings including:
- community mental health centres;
- residential and nursing 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 such as the NHS 111 service. It employs qualified professionals to act as the first point of contact for people experiencing healthcare problems, including mental health issues.
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 and/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:
- Mental Health Jobs
- the HEALTH job
- Health Jobs UK
- NHS Jobs - in England and Wales.
- NHS Professionals - part-time and temporary nursing jobs.
- NHS Scotland Recruitment
- RCN Bulletin Jobs
- NHS trust vacancy bulletins - find contact details at NHS Authorities and Trusts
- Local council websites and vacancy bulletins.
- National, local and regional newspapers.
Specialist recruitment agencies often handle vacancies. For contact details, try the Nursing Agencies List.
Nurses are required to renew their Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) registration every three years by completing a notification of practice (NOP) form and paying a renewal fee. The notification form confirms that the post-registration education and practice (PREP) requirements have been met. To comply with this, 450 hours of registered practice and 35 hours of learning activity must have been completed in the previous three years.
The NHS recognises the importance of continuing professional development (CPD) and is committed to providing post-registration training that will count towards the 35 hours of learning activity. Training is usually planned to suit the individual's pace and circumstances. For more details, see Prep Handbook.
In Scotland, all newly qualified practitioners are entitled to participate in Flying Start NHS, a personal development programme aimed at supporting individual learning and building confidence during the first year of practice in NHS Scotland.
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 theory and practice in four main areas:
- clinical nursing practice;
- care and programme management;
- clinical practice development;
- clinical practice leadership.
Masters courses are also available and nurses are encouraged to continue with their education and development.
Personal development planning is central to nursing posts in the National Health Service (NHS). This is implemented through the NHS Knowledge and Skills Framework, which determines required competencies for posts and provides the framework for which pay progression is achieved and reviews are carried out.
Career progression may involve developing a specialism in an area such as alcohol or substance misuse, forensic psychology, psychotherapeutic interventions or working with offenders. Some posts exist for mental health nurses to work with children and young people.
There are also opportunities to move into educational roles, such as:
- mentor for newly qualified staff;
- 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.
Nurses may join unit or trust management teams in both advisory and executive capacities, 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 are 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 for experienced staff 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, with posts in both paid and voluntary capacities and in private and state services.