With one in four people likely to be affected by mental or neurological conditions at some point in their lives, and the pandemic potentially leading to a rise in mental health conditions, it is more important than ever that people have access to good mental health care by qualified professionals.
Mental health nurses account for over a third of the mental health workforce in England and work across a wide range of health and care settings. Yet for a variety of reasons, the pipeline of people choosing to study and qualify to become a mental health nurse is unable to meet sharply rising demand for this service.
This new report, commissioned by NHS Employers and the Mental Health Network, looks at ways more people might be attracted to apply to study mental health nursing – and reasons why numbers are currently limited.
Our research found that:
- Inaccurate and negative perceptions of mental health patients and a lack of awareness of the mental health nursing role may be putting some people off the career. This, in part, is due to a failure to both promote the unique and varied aspects of mental health nursing and provide access to positive personal experiences and exposure to mental health. Often the terminology used to describe and define the role has not painted it in an accurate or positive light.
- Personal experience of mental health and exposure to it from family and friends have a significant influence on people’s motivations to pursue mental health careers
- The sheer volume of roles that exist within health care and mental health specifically creates a lack of clarity about the various options available to potential students and the differences between roles.
- Compared to other nursing careers, students on mental health nursing courses are more likely to be older and from minority ethnic groups. Mental health nursing students are also more likely to be male than for adult nursing, with both nursing fields more represented by students from lower socio-economic backgrounds than allied health professions. While this is positive from a diversity and inclusion perspective, to ensure a sustainable supply of new nurses it will be important to also attract applications from typically less represented groups.
- Despite the above issues, mental health nursing offers the opportunity for a rewarding career, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the future mental health nursing workforce. The students we spoke to were positive about their course choice and recognised the value of the role and the importance of encouraging others to consider it as a career.
We have identified a number of recommendations, detailed in full in the report, with some examples below. The recommendations broadly centre on five pillars: status, understanding, exposure, awareness (of support) and access to courses.
- Make significant investments to promote the valuable contribution that mental health nurses have made during the Covid-19 pandemic and the uniqueness of mental health nursing as a graduate career option able to act as a bridge between mental and physical conditions.
- Review relative pay, conditions, career pathways and progression for the various psychological professions to ensure they are fair and consistent with the role and education requirements, supporting flexible routes into mental health nursing, including for existing health care support workers.
- Develop detailed regional plans, based in part on local demographics, for the capacity that should be provided for each of the routes into mental health nursing, ensuring this is supported with additional, high-quality placements.
- Encourage mental health nursing across the breadth of the population, including different genders, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, recognising that attitudes towards both the mental health and nursing aspects of the role may differ across societal groups, especially in under-represented groups.
- Coordinate efforts to provide access to positive personal experiences of and exposure to mental health services and staff, including by sharing good practice on work experience and outreach work.
Palmer W, Hutchings R and Leone C (2020) Laying foundations: Attitudes and access to mental health nurse education. Report, Nuffield Trust.