What does a mental health nurse do?

Every day is different. Every person is an individual
Mental Health Nursing Thinkstock 504828814

Wondering what mental health nursing involves and whether it could be the career for you?

Around one in four people in the population suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their lives. Unfortunately people who experience mental health problems often find themselves judged or stigmatised by others.

Perhaps the most common preconception of mental health problems is that people hear voices or believe in a different reality compared with those around them. This only accounts for a small percentage of those who experience mental health problems. Difficulties may affect people’s lives at any stage of their development from childhood to old age. Mental health nurses are often the people who are there to help individuals and their families to overcome those difficulties.

Mental health nurses work in a variety of care settings with a variety of people with different problems and needs. Nurses may work in hospitals helping adults who have experiences like hearing voices or who are so deeply depressed that life seems hardly worth living. Nurses can help new mothers who have developed mental health problems after the birth of their child to bond with that child and overcome their problems.

Mental health problems are often hidden from view unlike many physical illnesses and so a nurse may visit a person at home to help that person to get back on track with family life, career and ambitions. Nurses also work in GP surgeries to help people who have problems in living their lives as they would want. A small percentage of people with mental health problems may encounter difficulties with the legal and judicial systems and so mental health nurses work in in police stations, in prisons or in forensic mental health units. 

Growing up in the modern world is a complicated and, for some people, overwhelming experience with concerns about body image, bullying, self-harm, sexuality not to mention the whole other world of what passes back and fore over the internet. There are nurses who specialise in Child and Adolescent Mental health services (CAMHS) who can offer help to young people and their families both at home and in specialised units. 

It is rare today for anyone to be able to say “I don’t know anyone who has dementia.” Mental health nurses are the people who provide care for people in memory clinics, day hospitals, at home and in hospital for people who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. 

Drinking alcohol or taking other substances are not uncommon ways of people filling their recreational time but for some people this can become problematic. Nurses can help people to overcome dependency on various substances.

So to ask what a mental health nurse does leads to a long and involved answer which depends on where the nurse works. For some mental health nurses helping people is about one-to-one counselling and psychotherapy. For others it is helping a person with dementia live a full and active life. Some nurses help those who have committed offences to get their lives back on track.

Mental health nursing involves understanding medication and how the human body and brain might respond to different drugs but not relying on this knowledge as the only answer. We have to learn to work with people and their families in ways that start with the premise that ultimately they possess the answers that work for them in their lives while at the same time learning to assess and manage risk.

Every day is different. Every person is an individual. If you feel that you are enthused by the idea of learning these skills and helping people then mental health nursing is for you.

Find out more about the Mental Health Nursing degree at USW. 


About the author: Dr Ian Beech is the Head of Division for Mental Health Nursing at USW. Ian has held clinical posts in drug and alcohol abuse, general surgery, an elderly mentally ill assessment unit and in community psychiatry.