If you're interested in supporting people with mental health issues a career as a primary care graduate mental health worker could be for you

Primary care graduate mental health workers provide a range of treatments, support and advice to people suffering from common mental health issues, such as anxiety and panic attacks.

You will promote positive mental health messages to service users, the community and other health care professionals through a variety of methods and techniques. Your work will mainly be with adults and you'll be part of a team of health professionals.

This is a common entry-level job for a number of career paths within the mental health services. Some employers refer to the role as graduate mental health worker.

Responsibilities

Your duties will vary depending on your employer but you can expect to be involved in:

  • understanding common mental health problems;
  • listening and treating people using a range of therapeutic approaches;
  • building trusting relationships with people;
  • working with people in a calm manner, particularly when presented with distressed service users;
  • communicating with people one-to-one, over the phone or in a group setting;
  • writing letters or reports for other healthcare professionals;
  • empowering people to manage their mental health effectively;
  • maintaining patient records;
  • developing personal knowledge and practice around mental health work;
  • running and developing new mental health services or initiatives.

Salary

The NHS pay structure, Agenda for Change, has set pay bands which you will see in advertised vacancies. In posts offered by charities or other partnership organisations you're likely to see slightly lower salaries.

  • Typical starting salaries for primary care graduate mental health workers are around £19,217 at band 4 or £21,909 at band 5.
  • As you gain more experience within band 5, this can increase up to £28,462.
  • With further training, internal or external, you could progress into higher-level roles such as high-intensity therapist, earning up to £41,373 at the top of band 7.

The NHS pays a London high-cost area supplement at 20% of basic salary for inner London, 15% for outer London and 5% for fringe areas.

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

Working hours

You'll typically work 37.5 hours per week in a full-time role. Depending on your service, you may be required to work these hours during weekends and/or evenings as part of a shift delivered service, for example if a 24-hour support line is offered.

Part-time and flexible working hours are often possible within this type of role, but will depend on the employer's flexible working policy and the requirements of the service.

What to expect

  • You'll be working with people who are facing mental health issues, which can be really rewarding but also emotionally stressful.
  • Hours can be unsociable but often allow a greater level of autonomy in developing effective practice than similar level roles.
  • There can be great variety in the work you do, allowing you to tackle mental health problems on a one-to-one basis as well as in groups, over the phone or in the community.
  • You'll be expected to dress and behave in a professional way, but with the awareness of being approachable to service users.
  • You may be expected to do some local travel as part of your work, but this will depend on your service.

Qualifications

You will typically be expected to have a related degree to enter this career. In some situations, for example band 4 positions, employers might accept equivalent experience or qualifications related to mental health or a similar area of work instead.

Degrees in the following subject areas are relevant to the job:

  • counselling;
  • nursing;
  • occupational therapy;
  • psychology;
  • social work.

Unrelated degrees can be accepted if you have completed some form of further qualification or training, for example a postgraduate award in counselling or similar.

Foundation degrees, HNDs or other qualifications may be accepted if in a relevant subject and/or combined with relevant work experience.

Postgraduate qualifications are not essential or expected but may be helpful if your undergraduate degree is in an unrelated subject.

You will need to be prepared to work towards further professional training as part of the job.

Relevant experience, alongside a proven understanding of mental health issues is the key combination for being successful in your application to the primary care graduate mental health worker role.

Skills

You will need to have:

  • a good understanding of mental health issues;
  • excellent listening skills to engage with service users;
  • the ability to build strong, trusting relationships with service users, other health professionals and colleagues;
  • independence and the ability to use your initiative, for example when lone-working or working one-to-one with service users;
  • flexibility in your approach to providing service-user support;
  • good written skills to write reports, letters and manage patient files and records;
  • strong time management skills and organisation to manage service-user interactions and group sessions;
  • professional practice awareness and the ability to develop your own clinical practice;
  • an ability to manage your own personal wellbeing when dealing with difficult situations and emotional issues.

A driving licence is also often required.

Work experience

It's very likely that you'll need some experience of working with mental health issues, and people in general, to increase your chance of securing one of these desirable posts.

Voluntary work, internships, placements or paid work in any role which has allowed you to work with people in a supportive way will be an advantage. Common areas of experience are in:

  • care;
  • counselling;
  • disability work;
  • healthcare;
  • mental health services;
  • social work.

Many voluntary opportunities exist, particularly within charities or local support organisations. You'll find these advertised through charity and volunteer websites but also by speaking directly with organisations you're interested in. Roles might include support-line volunteers, befriending services or group work assistants.

Voluntary service coordinators and managers of local NHS Trusts are able to tell you about available opportunities for work experience within the NHS.

It's also possible to use experience you may have gained through customer-facing roles in areas such as retail or sales to demonstrate your ability to communicate effectively with a range of people.

Employers

Most primary care graduate mental health workers are employed by NHS England, NHS Scotland, NHS Wales or Health and Social Care in Northern Ireland (HSC).

Roles can also be found with charities that have secured funding to deliver services within individual NHS trusts as part of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) initiative.

Opportunities are likely to be based in:

  • individual NHS trusts;
  • local clinics and health centres;
  • GP surgeries;
  • Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) services;
  • hospitals;
  • charities.

Look for job vacancies at:

Increase your chance of securing one of these roles by getting to know the NHS principles and values (if applying to the NHS).

Professional development

Once working you will receive training in different therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), as well as training on services and issues specific to the local community and NHS trust.

Training varies depending on the individual trust and employer. There may be the opportunity to access additional development courses and training in areas such as managing confidentiality and working with groups.

It is likely that you will complete the Postgraduate Certificate in Primary Mental Health Care Practice alongside your usual work (part time). There are a number of institutions which provide this course to NHS services.

The certificate is a necessary part of your role and enables you to develop your practice in areas such as evidence-based psychological interventions, clinical decision making, social inclusion and community engagement. The quality and enforcement of the course can vary depending on the trust so it's worth checking with your employer.

You'll need to keep up to date with developments within mental health throughout your career and you may choose to continue your own professional practice development though training opportunities offered by professional bodies such as:

These may include professional development workshops, mental health focused conferences or therapy focused training, e.g. cognitive behavioural therapy for couples.

Career prospects

There is a high turnover of primary care graduate mental health workers as it's often a key role in which to gain experience within the mental health sector before moving into related professional roles.

Career progression is possible into a variety of associated roles, all of which are likely to involve further training and increasing levels of experience with mental health issues.

Opportunities for progression include:

  • IAPT roles including psychological wellbeing practitioner and high-intensity therapist;
  • clinical psychology schemes;
  • specific mental health roles, for example through charities and support work focusing on specific issues such as eating disorders or bereavement;
  • educational roles as some schools, colleges and universities employ a range of staff to support students with mental health issues.