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How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

26th March 24

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

In the UK, where one in three will experience a mental health issue, mental health nurses are the backbone of care. They build trust, guide recovery, and fill a critical gap in a system facing high demand. 

It's a challenging but deeply rewarding path. If you’re looking for a chance to change lives in your career, we explore the role in detail plus routes for becoming a mental health nurse.

What Do Mental Health Nurses Do? 

Despite being a crucial pillar of support in the healthcare system, mental health nursing is still one of the roles in nursing people are most unfamiliar with. When it comes to supporting people with mental health challenges, this is still relatively new territory. So, if you’ve found yourself wondering ‘What does a mental health nurse do?’, you’re not the only one.

Unlike other nursing roles, mental health nurses don’t focus on the physical needs of the patient. Instead, you are trained to help patients deal with what they are thinking and how they are feeling.  

You may have patients in your care who experience low moods or depression to an extreme point that they have thoughts of suicide. Or you might work with individuals who feel completely isolated and find it hard to trust in others and get the help they need.  

No matter what they are dealing with, as a mental health nurse, you are by their side providing support throughout their treatment. This can require you to provide anything from physical support to advice or simply a listening ear.   

You will also be an advocate for your patients’ rights and help everyone you work with understand their options and the services available to them. As mental health nurses provide person-centred care, you will also ensure their personal goals are listened to by the professionals involved with their care and treatment. 

mental health nurse talking to patient

Roles And Responsibilities Of A Mental Health Nurse

More specifically, the role of mental health nurses can be broken down into several typical daily duties. Though, the work you complete will often be dictated by the needs of your patients.  

As a mental health nurse, you will:  

  • Organise workloads 
  • Visit patients at home 
  • Administer medication 
  • Write and update client records 
  • Assess and plan nursing care requirements 
  • Assess treatment success at case reviews and meetings 
  • Liaise with doctors, social workers and other professionals 
  • Help patients and their families overcome the stigma attached to mental health 
  • Encourage patients to take part in therapeutic activities such as art and role play

The Differences Between Nursing And Mental Health Nursing 

There are many differences between other areas of nursing and mental health nursing. One of the most noticeable differences is the patients’ response to treatment. A patient with a broken bone is almost always going to be grateful for the help they receive.

This isn’t always the case for patients receiving treatment for their mental health. For someone suffering from mental health, one of the first steps to recovery is realising that they are unwell. If they do not realise or cannot accept that they are unwell, it can make the mental health nurse’s job harder. Not least because the patient won’t understand they’re being treated.

This can lead to patients refusing medication, attempts to deceive or lie about their condition, and even resenting the nurse for offering help and support.

Whilst a difficult part of their job, this is an opportunity for mental health nurses to flourish. Not only do they have to care for the patient effectively, but they also must find different ways of managing the challenges poor mental health can bring.

What Qualifications Do Mental Health Nurses Need?

To become a mental health nurse, you’ll need a mental health nursing degree. Qualifications for mental health nurses are different to a standard nursing degree, as a nursing degree will not allow you to work as a mental health nurse without additional training or study.

The good news is mental health nursing degrees are offered by 122 universities in the UK, compared to 87 for standard nursing. Check your chosen mental health nurse qualification is approved by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) before you enrol, if not, you may not be able to practice as a Registered Nurse.

three nurses studying

Entry Requirements

To enrol on a mental health nursing degree, you’ll need to meet the minimum course requirements. These can vary slightly depending on the university but generally, these include:

  • 5 GCSEs (minimum) at grade C (4) or above - including English, Maths and a Science
  • 2 A-Levels (minimum) – including Biology or Human Biology. An A-Level in Psychology or Sociology is also preferable

If you don’t have these preliminary qualifications to be a mental health nurse, there are options available to you. Firstly, you can study the relevant GCSEs you’re lacking.

If it’s just Maths and English you need, an alternative is Level 2 Functional Skills qualifications. These focus just on the practical aspects of these subjects, so you can qualify within a few weeks.

Most universities accept Functional Skills qualifications but check before you apply.

If you don’t have the relevant A-Levels for a mental health nursing degree, you can study them online with learndirect. Each course can take up to a year to complete, but completion of online A-Levels is typically much faster than studying them within a classroom. So, it’s a great way to save valuable time.

Another option you have if you don’t have Level 3 qualifications like A-Levels, is to study an Access to Higher Education Diploma (Nursing). This enables you to go to university to study a mental health nursing degree without the need for multiple A-Levels, and it is typically completed within 9-12 months!

Once qualified and working as a mental health nurse, you’ll need to complete Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to maintain your license to work. Should you want to progress and move into a specialised role, you will need to focus on gaining the necessary on-the-job experience and consider completing further qualifications to help your application for senior specialised positions.

What Skills Do I Need To Be A Mental Health Nurse?

Problem-solving, strong interpersonal communication skills, observational skills and good judgement are essential skills for mental health nurses.

Perhaps most importantly of all, you need to possess empathy and a strong desire to help others. Individuals with mental health issues and illnesses face considerable stigma, so treating them with dignity can make a real difference.

If you work for the NHS, you will also be expected to uphold the NHS values:

  • Working together for patients. Patients come first in everything we do
  • Respect and dignity. We value every person – whether patient, their families or carers, or staff – as an individual, respect their aspirations and commitments in life, and seek to understand their priorities, needs, abilities and limits
  • Commitment to quality of care. We earn the trust placed in us by insisting on quality and striving to get the basics of quality of care – safety, effectiveness, and patient experience right every time
  • Compassion. We ensure that compassion is central to the care we provide and respond with humanity and kindness to each person’s pain, distress, anxiety or need
  • Improving lives. We strive to improve health and wellbeing and people’s experiences of the NHS
  • Everyone counts. We maximise our resources for the benefit of the whole community and make sure nobody is excluded, discriminated against, or left behind

Everyone from doctors to porters are expected to uphold these values, so you need to be confident that you can make that commitment.

After your nurse training, you’ll need to get registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to start working as a registered mental health nurse. Then, you’ll be working in an environment where these qualities and values are upheld each day, so you’ll be familiar with them in no time!

How Long Does It Take To Become A Mental Health Nurse? 

This depends on how many qualifications you currently hold. A mental health nursing degree at university is typically three years in length, so it’s the qualifications you need outside of this that will determine the additional time you’ll need to commit to qualifying.

If you need Level 2 qualifications, Level 3 qualifications, and a mental health nursing degree, it’s possible to have all of these done within four years if you study learndirect’s Access to Higher Education Diploma (Nursing) and our Level 2 Functional Skills English and Maths courses alongside it. This combination provides you with the fastest route to getting qualified as a mental health nurse.

nurse using building blocks showing medical icons

Career Opportunities For Mental Health Nurses

As you progress through your career, you will get the opportunity to specialise. You will take on additional training so you can work with and support a specific group or demographic. These include:

Working With Children

You could move into a role within Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), a specialist service that provides support and treatment to children and young people. As a CAMHS Nurse, it’s your job to deliver the child or young person’s care package, but also to empower them to find an effective way of managing their emotions, feelings, and thoughts.

Working With Older People

You could move into a role where you solely care for elderly individuals who experience depression, have been diagnosed with dementia, or are living with other forms of mental health issues or enduring disorders. In this role, you may work out of people’s homes, nursing homes, ambulatory care settings, or within acute care facilities.

Working With Individuals With Substance Misuse Issues

Roles in this specialism are focused on positively impacting the lives of people experiencing issues with alcohol and drug misuse. This can require you to perform duties like running community wellbeing clinics, performing wellbeing interventions, carrying out full healthcare assessments, screening people for blood borne viruses, and administering vaccinations.

Talking Therapies

Provide a range of talking therapies depending on the mental health issues individuals are presenting, to help them manage and overcome things like anxiety, obsessive thoughts and behaviours, sleeping issues, and phobias. Talking therapies you could provide include counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), guided self-help, and more.

Working With Prisons And Ex-Offenders

As a large number of prisoners experience mental health issues and enduring disorders, you can move into this specialist area of mental health nursing to help provide them and ex-offenders, with the support that will help their rehabilitation.

Duties can include performing mental health and risk assessments, creating and discussing care plans with individuals, administering medicines, updating reports, assessing progress, helping to organise inmate discharges and following up with them later on. Where required, you may also need to refer patients to other healthcare professionals.

A great thing about progressing as a mental health nurse is that specialising doesn’t stop you from changing specialisms. In fact, nurses are encouraged to train and develop their skills, moving between teams. This allows you to bring all your accumulated experience to a challenge.

As your career progresses you can also move towards becoming a nurse leader or nurse educator. Either leading teams of mental health nurses or training the next generation. Both are rewarding roles in their own way.

How Stressful Is Being A Mental Health Nurse? 

As a mental health nurse, you are helping people with a range of issues and challenges. These could be anything from severe anxiety and depression to psychosis, or personality disorders. As a result, you can often be present during the individual’s darkest times.

Mental health nurses are there for the long run. Some patients will be with you for a matter of days and weeks, whereas others may be over months or sometimes even years. Some patients’ roads to recovery can be long and bumpy and while improvement takes time, those signs of recovery always bring with them a sense of fulfilment.

A patient’s support network can become very involved in the recovery process, as they can offer support. Severe or enduring mental health issues can take a considerable toll on friends and relatives too. This is largely due to the individual’s support network trying to help but not always knowing how and being forced to stand by and watch the situation worsen.  

Part of a mental health nurse’s role is offering help and advice to the support network as well as the patient. This can be difficult because you are sometimes dealing with damaged relationships. Trust is often an issue and that takes time to rebuild, but enhancing their relationship whilst supporting the patient makes the effort completely worth it.

Mental health nursing not only is mentally stressful, but it can also be physically stressful too. Mental health nursing requires a good level of physical fitness and strength. Obviously, your role will differ based on the needs of the patient, but most patients will require physical handling.

This is because some patients will have less ability than others. Some patients will need help with everyday activities such as bathing or dressing. This will require your physical assistance. Some patients may also need restraining if they become 

distressed or confused. Whilst physically restraining a patient, you need to ensure they remain safe and unharmed. All patients are risk-assessed and any patients with a history of violence or aggression, are co-worked to reduce any risk.

This can all bring with it no small amount of stress, and some days will be emotionally and physically draining. However, the help you can provide your patients more than makeup for the tougher days.

nurse talking to patient

Mental Health Nursing FAQs

If you’re intrigued by this vital line of work, we’ve answered common FAQs about the role to clear up any uncertainties. 

Is Mental Health Nursing Competitive?

Yes, mental health nursing is competitive in the UK, with universities receiving high application rates. However, this is due to a significant shortage in the field. There are far more job openings than qualified nurses, with a growing demand for mental health services. So, if you're passionate about mental health and helping others, this competitive degree can lead to a rewarding and secure career.

Who Do Mental Health Nurses Work With? 

Mental health nurses work with individuals who are in a vulnerable mental state. As our range of thoughts, feelings and emotions are vast, to say the least, the types of mental health issues and enduring disorders you can support are extensive, complex and can come in various forms of severity.  

A few of the more common mental health conditions you will support are: 

  • Anxiety 
  • Depression 
  • Psychosis 
  • Bipolar Disorder 
  • Personality Disorders 
  • People requiring acute mental health care 

Outside of your patients, you will work together with doctors, other nurses, social workers, support workers, therapists and psychiatrists, to make sure your patients get the support they need.  

How Much Does A Mental Health Nurse Make? 

Again, as a relatively new role in the nursing profession, many people are unsure of the mental health nurse salary, which leaves people asking questions like ‘Do mental health nurses get paid more than other nurses?’ 

While this could be the case in terms of a private mental health nurse salary, UK learners, NHS nurse wages are capped and sit within bands that are relevant to your skills and experience. 

As such, registered mental health nurse NHS jobs start between £28,407 to £34,581 (Band 5) and can go up significantly with experience. Senior mental health nurse jobs like nurse consultants can earn more than £100,000 per year. 

Where Can A Mental Health Nurse Work? 

When working as a mental health nurse, you can be based in a variety of settings depending on whether you are employed by the NHS or privately.   

You could work in: 

  • General, psychiatric, and secure hospitals 
  • Residential and nursing homes 
  • Rehabilitation units 
  • Special units within prisons 
  • Health centres 
  • GP practices 
  • An individual’s home 

As a mental health nurse, you can also specialise in supporting specific needs or challenges. Should you go down this path you could work in: 

  • An intensive care unit 
  • Psychiatric ward 
  • Outpatient’s unit 
  • A specialised unit focused on a particular issue like eating disorders 

What Is A Therapeutic Relationship In Mental Health Nursing? 

The therapeutic relationship in any form of nursing is the connection between the nursing professional and the service user. It is vital for person-centred care to take place as it helps foster collaboration and a sense of being understood. More specifically for mental health patients, this form of care will help them reach an agreement on goals, tasks and create a healing bond between the nurse and the patient.  

The therapeutic relationship helps build an alliance with the patient, which is especially important in mental health care as not every patient realises they need the help they are receiving. As such, effective therapeutic relationships in mental health nursing require a combination of interpersonal professional skills with personal life experience. 

Each therapeutic relationship is unique and, therefore, requires renewed efforts at each new nurse-to-patient encounter. When built effectively, the therapeutic relationship can be key to positive outcomes in mental health care. 

What Is A Risk Assessment In Mental Health Nursing? 

A risk assessment in mental health nursing is the screening process that helps determine the level of harm a patient poses to themselves and others around them. A combination of methods can be used during each risk assessment, depending on the needs of the patient.  

This is an essential process for safe and effective treatment to take place and to properly review patient care needs prior to making decisions about the care they receive.  

What Is A Care Plan In Mental Health Nursing? 

A care plan is a personalised treatment strategy designed for each individual whose mental health needs require treatment from multiple health professionals. It explains clearly the support that is to be provided by each member of the service user's healthcare team, who is responsible for what and when that treatment or support will take place 

Healthcare plans for mental health patients will be reviewed on a regular basis to ensure they continue to meet the patient’s needs. 

What Is Community Mental Health Nursing? 

Community mental health nursing is the provision of nursing support to mental health service users outside of a hospital setting. This can be delivered through a range of diverse methods that are provided mostly by the NHS but can be run through local authorities, charities, or educational institutions. 

Is Mental Health Nursing Hard? 

It can be, but it can also be incredibly rewarding. There’s no hiding from the fact that a mental health nurse’s day can be quite stressful. You’re not only supporting people who have hit their emotional rock bottom, you will face incidences of aggressive and unpredictable behaviour at times too.  

This means that working as a mental health nurse can be both emotionally and physically demanding. However, your training more than prepares you to deal with these situations effectively and detach yourself from emotionally challenging situations.  

While there will be difficult days, overall, you will help your patients make progress and learn to live a life where they can either manage or overcome their conditions. This will take a huge amount of stress off them and their families and allow them to live a more enjoyable life.   

How Many Mental Health Nurses In The UK? 

While there isn't a single source for the entire UK, as of last year, there were around 95,485 mental health nurses registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) for the UK. This represents a positive trend with an increase from previous years.

Now we’ve explored the role of a mental health nurse in great detail, answered common questions about this career path, and detailed the possible routes you can take to get qualified, the only thing left to do is get started on your studies!

No matter which route you decide to take to get onto your mental health nursing degree, learndirect has the qualifications to help you achieve that goal. If you’re looking to start this highly rewarding career as quickly as possible, our Access to Higher Education Diploma (Nursing) is undoubtedly the fastest route you can take.

Click the link below to check it out in more detail or call our friendly team on 01202 006 464 to find out more now.

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