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What is it Like to be a Mental Health Nurse?

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18th May 21

While the daily responsibilities of a nurse have been well documented and dramatised, the same can’t be said for mental health nurses.

If you’re considering a career in this challenging – but rewarding – area of healthcare it’s useful to know exactly what you’re letting yourself in for. Especially before you enrol onto a distance learning course or a degree.

Just like mental health itself, this area of nursing has been subject to stigma and is often viewed negatively in the media. The portrayal of mental health nurses and mental health facilities on the big and small screen over the years hasn’t helped. Films, TV shows and books would lead you to believe mental health nurses range from cold and uncaring to sadistic and cruel. But the truth couldn’t be further from it.

Mental health nurses have to be incredibly caring, empathetic and patient to successfully care for their patients. Providing person-centred care means your number one priority is putting their needs first. And to do this, you must build a strong bond and work closely with them to identify what those needs are.

Unlike other careers involved with mental health, you provide extended, ongoing support to the individuals you care for. Rather than helping them within short sessions over time, like a counsellor or therapist would.

Instead, as part of a wider team, you’ll deliver round the clock care and be a pillar of strength for them in their times of need. If this sounds like something you’d like to pursue, read on for more about what this role entails.

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Stress Points are different to Regular Nursing

One of the main differences between mental health nursing and other areas of nursing is how patients respond to treatment. Someone with a physical injury, for example, would generally be extremely grateful for the help they receive. Knowing that the work you and the doctors are doing is going to make them better.

This can be quite different for mental health patients. In many cases you could be working with individuals who may not accept or believe they are unwell. Which can lead them to reject medication they don’t feel they should be taking and resent you for offering the support.

While challenging, this is an element of the role where good mental health nurses thrive. They not only have to deal with their patient’s needs but find ways of managing their confusion or conflicting feelings about them. All of which requires higher levels of empathy, understanding and communication ability. As well as the ability to reassure and soothe those who are unsure or frightened of their surroundings.

learndirect - What's it Like to be a Mental Health Nurse?

It requires Physical Fitness and Strength

As a mental health nurse, you can be working with individuals with different levels of ability. Your role will differ depending on the severity of their needs, but most will require a certain level of fitness and physical ability.

This is because you could be helping patients with diminished capacity or ability perform daily duties like bathing or dressing. Which requires your physical assistance. In instances where patients aren’t comfortable or are confused, they may also act out. In this case you’ll need to be able to physically restrain them. All the while reassuring them they are safe and where they need to be.

All patients are risk assessed so anyone with a history of violence or aggression is co-worked to reduce the risk.  

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Seeing Patients improve is Incredibly Rewarding

While every aspect of nursing helps people through challenging times, mental health nursing is up there with the most rewarding.

You can help people with a range of issues from anxiety and depression, to psychosis and personality disorders. You’ll often be there for them in their darkest moments. Staying by their side and helping them for the duration of their treatment while they work to manage their issues.

Some of your patients will be with you for weeks, others can be months or years. The road ahead for many can be lengthy and challenging. But the feeling you get when they show signs of recovery is unbeatable.

You’ll have days when those refusing treatment engage and start to turn a corner. When the patient who won’t accept or acknowledge their issues starts to face them head on. Moments like these and seeing them build positive relationships again or get released from hospital, makes you realise the value of your work.

Another highly rewarding aspect is knowing the difference you’re making to that person’s wider support network. Taking the weight off families and friends who’ve tried to support them alone in the past. And being able to enhance their relationship as you support them in their recovery.

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You are an Advocate for those in your Care

A large part of being a mental health nurse is advocating for your patient’s rights. Helping those with diminished capacity understand their options and the services available to them. You also make sure their personal goals are being listened to by the wider team involved with their care and treatment.

To do so effectively you’ll engage with friends and families to both inform and support them while their loved one is receiving treatment. You’ll also work with third party and community care teams to develop a package of care with the patient, and ensuring they adhere to their treatment plan.

Start with an Online Course

If you want to be a mental health nurse, you’ll first need to complete a mental health nursing degree. These are offered by 122 universities within the UK, compared to just 87 for standard nursing. Showing just how important this area of nursing is.

Your degree course needs to be approved by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, so be sure to check this before you enrol. You’ll also need to meet the entry requirements for your course before you can apply to university.

These can vary slightly depending on the university but generally, they 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. Other Level 3 qualifications are also accepted, such as an Access to Higher Education Diploma.

An Access to HE Diploma (Nursing) provides a great starting point for those without A Levels. Studied online, it allows you to progress to university faster than you would by completing separate A Level qualifications.

It covers important topics like the responsibilities of a registered nurse, approaches to health as well as the history of the NHS. You’re also introduced to psychology, the brain & nervous system, which helps you prepare for mental health nursing at university.

There are also numerous online courses in mental health education. These can build your knowledge of supporting individuals experiencing mental health issues and enduring disorders, ahead of your university degree.

You can study all these courses and more with learndirect, the leading UK distance learning provider.

Find out more about how our Access to HE Diploma (Nursing) can help you become a mental health nurse below.

learndirect - become a mental health nurse

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