As a mental health nurse, the active involvement and varying level of support that you’ll provide a patient means that no two days will look the same. Of course, these days won't come without their challenges, but if you are passionate about helping people, then you already have the foundations for building a rewarding career. From there, you can develop key skills to give you the strength to offer your best level of care to patients.
What does a mental health nurse do?
A mental health nurse is involved in every aspect of patient care, from their assessment to the implementation of their care plan. Duties include assessing a person's condition using questionnaires and other similar resources, supporting patients to take their medication, monitoring their condition and providing advice about therapies. These patients may be suffering from anxiety and depression, eating disorders, or addictions to alcohol and drugs.
To provide this comprehensive level of care, mental health nurses will work alongside a range of different health professionals day-to-day, including doctors, social workers, occupational therapists, and psychiatrists. So, what else do you need to know?
Qualifications, Training & Skills required to be a mental health nurse
The most recognised pathway into mental health nursing is to a complete degree in general nursing. This three-year course will then give you the choice to specialise in a field of your choice - adult, children, learning disability or mental health. To be accepted on this course you’ll need two or three A-levels and five GCSEs. If you’ve completed a relevant health, biological or social sciences degree beforehand, you can convert this by completing a two-year postgraduate degree. The Government have since created more accessible routes into the industry, including new initiatives such as the Nursing Associate Apprenticeship and Nurse First to help tackle the rise in demand for nurses.
The profession requires someone with a caring and empathetic nature. You’ll need to be compassionate towards patients, but the highly sensitive cases will also require you to develop resilience and adaptability. These skills will give you the strength to continue providing a high level of care even in the most difficult of situations. You can build your resilience by being self-aware and thinking critically, something that you will learn in your nurse training and throughout your career.
What does training look like as a mental health nurse?
During your nursing training, you can complete placements both in general mental health and children’s mental health. Each day will differ from the previous one because you will be required to provide a different level of care to each patient. The commonality will be the essential need to build a relationship with them and their support system. For example, you may need to treat a paranoid patient who believes that their medication is harmful to them, so developing a personal connection is fundamental to getting the patient to trust you and accept your help.
Similarly, developing a relationship with an adolescent suffering from psychosis may be as simple as playing a game with them, but this can encourage them to confide in you and begin their recovery process.
Progression Opportunities in mental health nursing
With seniority, you have the option to specialise in various fields, one area being home visits. Those who suffer from mental illnesses that prevent them from leaving their home, such as anxiety and dementia, will require a home visit from a mental health specialist. The purpose of these visits will be to work with the patient and their family or carer to identify how you can improve their health and quality of life.
Another area to specialise in is to work with offenders. The environments will range from open prisons to high-security estates and female estates and will present unique challenges. This presents you with the opportunity to further develop your resilience and empathy as you will be exposed to more diverse – and potentially high-risk – situations.
Challenges of working within mental health
Clients may display damaging behaviour, and this can be especially difficult to witness when you are trying to help them. Understanding the root of the behaviour may be the biggest challenge. With compassion and patience, you can help a patient realise their destructive behaviour and create a care plan with them.
Another challenge is the demanding nature of a social care nurse career. At times the flexible shift pattern can create challenges for your work-life balance. It’s your job to take care of others, but this shouldn’t be at the expense of failing to notice how you could improve your own health. Tips such as these, as well as practising mindfulness, can help to prevent burnout. You may also face challenges regarding the many stigmas surrounding mental health, which remains a battle to have recognised as being an essential component of a person’s physical health.
Benefits of being a mental health nurse
If you’re willing to take on the challenge, then prepare yourself for an exciting and meaningful career. The diverse work settings that mental health nurses work in mean they are considered generalists and specialists. You will have the expertise and knowledge to give an overview of a patient’s health, both physically and mentally. This ability to provide a fast and informed diagnosis of the patient’s overall health makes you invaluable to a mental health team. Specialising in an area will present niche career progression options; completing further qualifications can get you promoted to an advanced nurse practitioner, clinical nurse specialist (CNS), or nurse consultant.
Working with other people and knowing that you are making a difference in their lives is what makes the rewards outweigh the challenges. You will notice small improvements in your patients – they may begin to engage more in conversations and become more cooperative. And when a patient takes those larger steps like leaving their home and reintegrating into society you will know that you have been a part of that progress.
Just as you are supporting individuals through difficult scenarios you will receive support from your colleagues. Emotional situations bring people together and that is why nurses experience a unique bond. Not every profession can turn co-workers into a family.
The Future of Mental Health
Before committing to a new career, you more than often find yourself questioning the longevity of the industry you're joining.
Over the last 50 years, our approach to mental health care has shifted remarkably, with the closing of asylums standing tall as one of the biggest advancements. However, experts are still fighting to improve the quality of care that we provide. Locked rehabilitation wards still exist, which means patients are not being provided with the skills they need to live independently. Without the support from trained experts, these institutions will remain and vulnerable people will fail to reintegrate into society. This alone signifies the potential for further change.
Not forgetting, the country predicts a spike in demand for mental health nurses to care for patients with illnesses such as Dementia and Alzheimer's disease. By 2040, the number of people living with Dementia is expected to increase to 1.6 million, therefore the number of vacancies will rise. This data pledges one of the biggest career prospects, providing job security for decades.
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