Check out the courses we offer

How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

Responsibilities, working hours, what to expect and qualifications needed

Career guides » How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

What does a mental health nurse do?

Mental health nurses are also known as Registered Mental Health Nurses, or RMNs. They are trained, registered individuals who support and care for patients with mental health problems and help with recovery and treatment. They may work with patients with short-term mental health issues and those with complex long-term conditions.

Mental health nurses can work in various settings, such as hospitals and the community. They can also specialise in working with children or elderly individuals or specific areas of mental health, e.g. drugs and alcohol, psychosis, personality disorders, depression and anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder. Therefore, what mental health nurses do will depend on where they work and their specialisms.

A mental health nurse’s main aim is to deliver the best possible patient care by focusing on the needs of the individual receiving support and treatment. They help individuals with mental health issues to be independent to lead happier, healthier and more fulfilling lives. They are also crucial in educating and promoting patient health and well-being.

Mental health nurses will have many duties, including assessing patients’ needs, planning and delivering treatments, helping individuals understand, providing support and general care, assisting with medications, monitoring medications, building relationships, identifying when patients are at risk, helping those in distress, providing physical care, encouraging patient participation, etc. The role can also have an element of administrative work, such as maintaining patient records.

Mental health nurses usually work as part of a multidisciplinary team with psychologists, hospital doctors, GPs, other nurses, psychiatrists, counsellors, social workers, occupational therapists, arts therapists and healthcare assistants. They can also liaise with various external stakeholders, including patients and their relatives, carers, emergency workers, the police, court staff, etc. There may be times when mental health nurses work alone, i.e. travelling to patients in the community.

Mental health nurses can work in hospitals, GP practices, health centres, adult care homes, prisons and patients’ homes. Most will work for large organisations, such as the NHS, but they can also work for smaller private hospitals, care providers and charities. Some mental health nurses may become self-employed, e.g. providing consultancy services or working through employment agencies.

Responsibilities

A mental health nurse’s responsibilities depend on where they work, their role and their specialisms.

Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Assessing patients’ needs, talking to them about their issues and providing the necessary support.
  • Planning and delivering treatments to patients.
  • Helping individuals to understand their situation and listening to their needs and concerns.
  • Providing general care to patients undergoing support and treatment.
  • Assisting patients in taking medications and administering them where required.
  • Monitoring the effects of any medications.
  • Building trusting, empathetic and supporting relationships with patients, relatives and carers.
  • Identifying when patients are at risk of harming themselves or others and taking appropriate actions when they are in distress, e.g. de-escalation techniques.
  • Providing patients with physical care, e.g. self-care and hygiene, where necessary.
  • Advising patients about suitable therapies and social activities and encouraging them to participate.
  • Preparing and taking part in one-to-one and group therapy sessions.
  • Maintaining accurate patient records and keeping them up to date.
  • Liaising and collaborating with other healthcare professionals, e.g. psychologists, psychiatrists, GPs, social workers, etc.

Working hours

A mental health nurse can expect to work 37-38 hours a week. However, the average working week is typically 37.5 hours.

No two days are the same; it is not a 9-5 job. Mental health nurses are often required to work shifts at unsociable hours, e.g. early starts, evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays. Some may provide 24-hour care in residential and hospital settings.

Flexible work may be possible for some mental health nurses, e.g. part-time hours or a job share. There are even opportunities for remote working from home with some community roles.

Travel may be necessary for mental health nurses, i.e. working in the community. There may be a requirement to cover mental health nurses in other areas, and there may also be opportunities to work overseas for some individuals.

The shifts can be long and up to 12 hours a day in some cases, e.g. 7 am to 7 pm or 7 pm to 7 am. Most of this time will require mental health nurses to be on their feet, so they must have a certain fitness level.

What to expect

Being a mental health nurse is not for the faint-hearted. However, it is a rewarding career choice, as they support people with mental health issues with their recovery and help them to live independently. Mental health nurses help patients to improve their quality of life and, in some cases, can save lives. They can go home after the working day knowing they have made a significant difference to patients, their families and society.

There is no shortage of mental health nursing roles, jobs are available nationally, and there are many different roles in which to specialise. The salary for a mental health nurse is also competitive compared to other jobs, even at entry-level. However, it does reflect the level of education, training and commitment needed to enter the profession.

If mental health nurses work for the NHS, they will receive benefits such as a pension scheme, health service discounts and generous annual leave, including bank holidays.

Boredom will never be a problem for mental health nurses, as their work is very varied and fast-paced. They will see and care for many people with various mental health issues throughout their shifts. One moment, they may need to help administer medication to a patient and the next, advise another on suitable therapies.

Even though there are positives to being a mental health nurse, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:

  • Complex and high-pressured situations – each patient will have different mental health issues, and some may be at risk or in severe distress. Mental health nurses must be capable of working in pressured situations and challenging environments. They have significant responsibility; mistakes could make a mentally ill person worse, escalate a critical event and even cost lives. Prospective mental health nurses should be aware that there can be life-or-death situations.
  • Physical demands – the role can be physically demanding and may require mental health nurses to be on their feet for long periods, and there may be a need to perform physical tasks, such as lifting and moving patients. Their shifts can also be up to 12 hours long. Therefore, they will need to be physically fit.
  • Mental and emotional demands – some situations may be mentally and emotionally demanding for mental health nurses. They may have patients who are threatening themselves and others or those who are extremely upset, depressed or anxious. It can be challenging and stressful dealing with mentally ill patients and their families.
  • Work-life balance difficulties – mental health nurses work unsociable hours and some over 24-hour shifts. Maintaining a decent work-life balance can be difficult due to erratic working patterns. However, it may be possible for some.
  • Work-related violence – there is a risk of verbal and physical abuse and even violence when working with patients with mental health issues. Employers must reduce and manage the risk of work-related violence, and mental health nurses will receive training on identifying and de-escalating these situations.

 

Every career choice has pros and cons, and individuals must know what to expect before deciding whether it is for them. There is no doubt that working as a mental health nurse and with mentally ill patients is challenging and stressful. It is also physically, mentally and emotionally demanding, the shifts are often long and unsociable, and there is a risk of work-related violence. However, there are many positives and helping and supporting people is why individuals enter the mental health nursing profession.

When considering whether to be a mental health nurse, individuals should consider the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the necessary personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.

Personal qualities needed to be a mental health nurse

Some of the personal qualities that a mental health nurse requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Knowledge of healthcare, medicine, mental health and psychology.
  • Knowledge of related legislation and standards.
  • Knowledge of health and safety and infection control.
  • Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and the GDPR.
  • Having a caring attitude, compassion, sensitivity, empathy and understanding.
  • Having confidence, patience and a reassuring manner.
  • Mature and practical.
  • Having a non-judgemental approach.
  • Enjoying being hands-on with people on a daily basis.
  • Excellent interpersonal skills, i.e. the ability to deal with patients, families, members of the public, and other healthcare professionals.
  • Excellent communication skills, both written and verbal.
  • Customer service skills.
  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills.
  • Observational skills.
  • Counselling skills.
  • Active listening skills and the ability to give and follow instructions.
  • Organisational and leadership skills.
  • Time management skills.
  • Being motivated and committed to helping people.
  • Being thorough and having attention to detail.
  • Being flexible and open to change.
  • The ability to work both in a team and alone using own initiative.
  • The ability to put people at ease and make them feel comfortable.
  • The ability to be resilient in emotionally demanding situations.
  • The ability to gain patients’ trust and confidence.
  • The ability to accept criticism.
  • The ability to work under pressure and remain calm in stressful situations and in a crisis.
  • The ability to use IT equipment and software competently.

Qualifications and training

Qualifications

university, do an apprenticeship or apply to the Armed Forces. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.

University

To become a mental health nurse, individuals need a mental health nursing degree approved by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), run at an approved educational institution (AEI).

They could also:

  • Study in an alternative nursing area alongside mental health nursing.
  • Undertake a recognised mental health nursing and social work degree.

 

Undergraduate degrees usually take three years (full-time). To be accepted onto a course typically requires:

  • Two or three relevant A levels, including science (or equivalent, e.g. a Level 3 diploma or access to higher education in health, science or nursing) and;
  • 4-5 GCSEs (grades A-C), including English language, maths and at least one science.

 

Individuals with a degree in a related subject (e.g. social work, life sciences, biological sciences, psychology or another health-related one) may be able to enrol on a two-year accelerated pre-registration postgraduate course. It is accreditation of prior experiential learning (APEL) and accounts for previous learning, including practice-based learning. It means individuals may become registered as mental health nurses and practise after two years instead of three. It will depend on each university, and individuals should check before applying.

Financial support is available for those wishing to study for a health-related degree. Further information about funds and eligibility is on the NHS website.

Apprenticeships

There is also an opportunity for individuals to apply for a nursing degree apprenticeship, which takes about four years. They will need to be working in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital, and will need their employer’s support.

Individuals should have four or five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) and A levels or equivalent.

Opportunities are on Government Apprenticeships, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, NHS apprenticeships and Indeed.

Armed Forces

The Armed Forces (the RAF, Royal Navy and Army) can also provide a route into a career in mental health nursing. The entry requirements are on their websites.

Other routes

Individuals can also become mental health nurses if registered as nurses. However, they must undertake an 18-month mental health nursing conversion course and speak to their employer.

Mental Health Nurse Talking With Patient

Work experience

Individuals can undertake relevant paid or voluntary work experience to help them secure a place on courses and to help them enter the mental health nursing role after graduation.

They could:

  • Start work as a nursing associate whilst studying for a degree.
  • Work in a healthcare or social care setting, e.g. a hospital.
  • Volunteer with the NHS in a relevant role, e.g. in local mental health care services.
  • Volunteer or work with charities or community schemes offering mental health services.
  • Apply for work placement opportunities in private clinics and care homes.
  • Shadow an experienced nurse at their local hospital or clinic to learn more about the role and see if it is the right career path for them.

 

Individuals can browse job websites to look for relevant roles that could help them get experience. There is also information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.

Becoming a Mental Health Nurse

Training courses

Learning does not stop with experience or once someone becomes qualified. Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help individuals enter the profession, enhance their employability and keep their knowledge and skills current.

We have many approved mental health courses that can be useful for individuals looking for a career as a mental health nurse.

Other courses that may also be relevant are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Care certificate.
  • Person-centred care.
  • Equality and diversity.
  • LGBTQ+ awareness.
  • Infection control.
  • Needles and sharps.
  • COVID-19 awareness.
  • Time management.
  • Health and safety, e.g. assessing risk, manual handling, work-related stress, violence at work, workplace first aid, lone working, PPE in healthcare, etc.
  • Food safety and hygiene.
  • Understanding GDPR.

 

Professional bodies and associations, such as the NMC, the Royal College of Nursing, the Mental Health Nurses Association and the Association of Mental Health Providers, can also advise on reputable training courses. Some also provide memberships, events and support to help individuals become mental health nurses and give those already in the profession the means to continue their professional development. Continuing professional development (CPD) is a mandatory requirement for NMC registration. Also, see CPD courses for nurses for further guidance on CPD.

The type of training required will depend on what employers are looking for and the CPD requirements for registration. As well as looking at professional body websites, it is also worth looking at several job advertisements to identify the courses required and other training needed for specialist roles. Jobs are on NHS Jobs, Nurses.co.uk, Nursing Times, HealthJobsUK, RCN Bulletin Jobs, Bupa Careers, NHSScotland Jobs, HSCNI Jobs, BMJ Health Careers and other job sites, such as Armed Forces Careers, Indeed UK, Glassdoor and GOV.UK Find a Job Service. Also, look at recruitment agencies, such as Pulse.

Relevant training and competence will open up more opportunities for mental health nurses. Refresher training will also be required, as it is a legal requirement, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.

Registration and revalidation

On completing an approved qualification, individuals must register with the NMC to work as mental health nurses. They must maintain registration to continue to practise, known as revalidation. There is a cost to become registered and to maintain registration.

Criminal records checks

Mental health nurses must undergo a criminal record check, as they may come into contact with children and vulnerable adults. A criminal record, caution, warning or conviction may put off prospective employers. However, an employer should account for the seriousness of the crime, when it occurred and its relevance to the role.

The organisation that holds criminal records will depend on the country within the UK, for example:

 

Driving

Some mental health nurses drive as part of their role, especially when working in the community. Therefore, they should have a full clean driving licence.

Mental Health Nurse Comforting Patient

Where do mental health nurses work?

Mental health nurses can work in many different settings, including (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Hospitals, i.e. psychiatric wards, psychiatric intensive care units, outpatient units and specialist units.
  • Community health centres.
  • GP surgeries.
  • Clinics.
  • Schools and universities.
  • Research centres.
  • Residential centres and care homes.
  • Military bases.
  • Hospices.
  • Control rooms, e.g. taking urgent and non-urgent calls.
  • Patients’ homes and in the community.
  • Their own homes or business premises.
  • Prisons.
  • Police custody suites.

 

They can work for public bodies and private organisations, for example:

  • The NHS.
  • HM Prison Service.
  • Private hospitals and clinics, e.g. Bupa and Nuffield Health.
  • Mental health charities.
  • The Armed Forces, e.g. the RAF, Royal Navy or Army.

 

They can also be self-employed and work for themselves or for a nursing agency.

Become a Mental Health Nurse

How much do mental health nurses earn?

If a mental health nurse decides to work for the NHS, their salary is subject to a band pay system (agenda for change pay rates).

For example (these are a guide only and are subject to change):

  • Starting salary (band 5) – £28,407–£34,581.
  • More experienced nurses (band 6) – £35,392–£42,618.
  • Nurse managers (band 7) – £43,742–£50,056.
  • Lead/senior nurses (band 8a) – £50,952–£57,349.
  • Consultant nurses/matrons (band 8b) – £58,972–£68,525.
  • Head of services/directors (band 8c) – £70,417–£81,138.
  • Chief nurses (band 8d) – £83,571–£96,376.

 

The exact salaries for mental health nurses will depend on their role, geographical location, specialisms, qualifications and years of experience. As individuals progress in their careers, there may be opportunities to enter more senior positions, and the band will increase.

There may be potential for mental health nurses to earn more if they work in other settings, e.g. private practice. Experienced nurses may earn higher salaries if they combine clinical work with research and teaching.

As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). Some employers will pay more than this, but it will depend on the organisation and role on offer.

Patient with Mental Health Nurse

Types of mental health nursing roles to specialise in

Not only are there opportunities for mental health nurses to move up the career ladder and work in various locations, but there are also many different roles and areas in which they can specialise, such as (this list is not exhaustive):

  • Children’s (paediatric) mental health nursing – helping and treating children with mental health issues, such as eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder and feeling suicidal. They also work closely with families and carers.
  • Community mental health nursing – also known as community psychiatric nursing (CPN). It involves helping and treating patients in the community with mental health problems and dementia to enable them to live as independently as possible.
  • Forensic mental health nursing – working with patients with mental health issues who have committed criminal offences. Patients can commit crimes due to their mental health problems or become ill following offences they have committed.
  • Older adults’ mental health nursing – is sometimes also known as older people’s mental health nursing. They support and care for elderly individuals with mental health problems.
  • Perinatal mental health nursing – providing care and treatment to women with mental health problems occurring during pregnancy or in the first year following the birth of a child.
  • Psychiatry Intensive Care Unit (PICU) mental health nursing – working in a mental health emergency unit or ward and caring for patients admitted following a mental health crisis.

 

They can also specialise in helping and supporting individuals with specific mental health issues such as:

  • Children’s (paediatric) mental health nursing – helping and treating children with mental health issues, such as eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder and feeling suicidal. They also work closely with families and carers.
  • Community mental health nursing – also known as community psychiatric nursing (CPN). It involves helping and treating patients in the community with mental health problems and dementia to enable them to live as independently as possible.
  • Forensic mental health nursing – working with patients with mental health issues who have committed criminal offences. Patients can commit crimes due to their mental health problems or become ill following offences they have committed.
  • Older adults’ mental health nursing – is sometimes also known as older people’s mental health nursing. They support and care for elderly individuals with mental health problems.
  • Perinatal mental health nursing – providing care and treatment to women with mental health problems occurring during pregnancy or in the first year following the birth of a child.
  • Psychiatry Intensive Care Unit (PICU) mental health nursing – working in a mental health emergency unit or ward and caring for patients admitted following a mental health crisis.

 

They can also specialise in helping and supporting individuals with specific mental health issues such as:

  • Alcohol or substance misuse.
  • Alzheimer’s and dementia.
  • Anxiety.
  • Bipolar.
  • Depression.
  • Eating disorders.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • Personality disorders.
  • Psychosis.
  • Schizophrenia.

 

There are many different mental health nursing roles and specialisms to choose from, and far too many to mention here. All specialist roles require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. Some may need specific qualifications and additional training for specialised areas.

All mental health nurses will need to know how to build trusting relationships with patients and have knowledge of mental health and psychology. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an organisation is looking for in a mental health nurse and the type of work an individual wants.

If mental health nurses do not do their role effectively and safely, a patient’s condition could worsen, and they can cost lives. Therefore, whatever the type of role, mental health nurses must have the necessary competence (knowledge, skills and experience) to carry out the work professionally and safely. They should also know the limits of their competency and not carry out any tasks without the necessary training and competence.

Nurse in Mental Health

Professional bodies

Mental health nursing standards, therapies, techniques, technologies and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, mental health nurses must keep ahead of the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and carry out their roles effectively and safely. CPD gives nurses the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them stay registered with the NMC and progress in their career.

Joining a professional body or association (as previously mentioned) can help prospective and current mental health nurses enhance their skills and overall career. These can offer different levels of membership, CPD, access to industry contacts and networking events.

There is ample opportunity for career progression within mental health nursing, as it is diverse. With more qualifications and experience, a mental health nurse can become an advanced nurse practitioner, manager, matron, consultant and even head of service. They can also decide to focus on a specific area of mental health nursing, such as forensics, paediatrics or community. Alternatively, they may choose to become self-employed or work overseas.

Having the knowledge, skills and experience in mental health nursing can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, a mental health nurse may want to work in education, training or research. They may want to work in other areas of healthcare or for prison services and social services.

Get started on a course suitable for becoming a mental health nursing

  • Infection Control Unit SlideInfection Control course

    Infection Control

    £20 + VAT
    View course
  • Person Centred Care Unit OverviewPerson Centred Care

    Person-Centred Care

    £20 + VAT
    View course
  • LGBTQ Awareness Course OverviewLGBTQ Awareness Course

    LGBTQ+ Awareness

    £20 + VAT
    View course
  • Needles and Sharps Unit SlideNeedles and sharps course

    Needles and Sharps

    £20 + VAT
    View course
  • Time Management Unit OverviewTime Management

    Time Management

    £20 + VAT
    View course
  • Equality and Diversity unit pageEquality and Diversity Awareness Course

    Equality and Diversity

    £15 + VAT
    View course
  • Understanding GDPR unit pageUnderstanding GDPR course

    Understanding GDPR

    £20 + VAT
    View course
  • Care Certificate Unit OverviewCare Certificate Course

    Care Certificate

    £20 + VAT
    View course