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How to Become a Mental Health Nurse

3 May 2018 at 3:23 pm
Becoming a mental health nurse is a diverse and rewarding profession that comes with huge career opportunities.

Contributor | 3 May 2018 at 3:23 pm


How to Become a Mental Health Nurse
3 May 2018 at 3:23 pm

Becoming a mental health nurse is a diverse and rewarding profession that comes with huge career opportunities.

One in five Australians experience a mental health condition each year, and almost one in two will experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. While mental health awareness is improving in Australia, experts like Dr Patrick McGorrie argue that this hasn’t yet translated into the increased services necessary to improve outcomes for patients.

One crucial, but often overlooked factor is the increasing demand for highly trained mental health nurses (MHNs). The Department of Health projections predicts that if things stay as they are, Australia will have fewer than 40 per cent of the MHNs it needs in 2030. This would be the “largest (staff) undersupply of all sectors” in the healthcare system.

However, this does mean increased opportunities for those interested in pursuing a career in mental health, with options to focus on areas such as holistic assessment, education, counselling, psychotherapy, medication management or direct nursing care, it can be an extremely diverse and rewarding branch of specialised nursing.  

The National Mental Health Commissions’ review of Mental Health Programs and Services have recognised the need for long-term reform of the system, and have identified several factors to ensure the system is more efficient and accessible. They are introducing a “Stepped care model” which will ideally move away from a one size fits all approach and focus on meeting individual needs, overall, achieving better targeting of service.

How do I become a mental health nurse?

The most common pathway into the field is to study an undergraduate Bachelor of Nursing degree, at which point, you have the option to practice as a nurse, primarily in mental health settings. To become a specialist MHN, you are required to undertake further postgraduate study at graduate or Masters level. MHNs receive generalist nursing training as well as specialist mental health training, meaning they are qualified to provide a physical health care assessment, whilst being aware of indicators of mental illness in a patient. MHNs support people experiencing a range of mental illnesses such as:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • bipolar disorders
  • delusion and/or psychosis-related illness, such as schizophrenia
  • eating disorders
  • drug dependence
  • alcohol dependence
  • obsessive compulsive disorder
  • Alzheimer’s disease.

MHNs work alongside a variety of healthcare professionals, such as doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and health administrators, to provide the best quality of care for patients. They support people from early intervention, through to rehabilitation, in a variety of settings, working with communities, families and individuals to emergency psychiatric care.

Am I the right fit?

MHNs provide direct and ongoing practical and psychological support to clients suffering from mental health issues, and deliver complex interventions and assessments to produce the best possible outcome for a patient.

Although, as with most roles, this career doesn’t come without its challenges. Practicing as a MHN requires a great deal of resilience and strength of character and can be demanding and emotionally exhausting. Often MHNs are presented with confronting, concerning behaviors, however, the specialised healthcare training and support that nurses receive, provides rigorous, evidence-based frameworks for personal support and self-care.

Just as mental health differs to physical health, the traits and skills required in mental health nursing differ to those of generalist nursing. Practitioners may have more face-to-face time with clients, and must be attuned to the subtleties of diagnosis. No two cases of psychological illness are the same, so mental health nurses must be especially agile and nuanced in their practice and tailor their treatment and personal manner to each individual patient.

Great practitioners in the field combine astute empathy with practical expertise, a prime example of this being the winner of the 2017 Mental Health Nurse Award, Matthew Ball, who spent eight years receiving treatment for schizophrenia himself. After his recovery, he trained as a mental health nurse and now leads a groundbreaking rehabilitation program for people experiencing psychosis.

“We spend time with people,” he told ABC Radio Adelaide, “and it’s a lot about love, compassion and hearing people’s stories.”

What qualifications are required?

If you’re already a registered, enrolled nurse in Australia and you’re ready to become a mental health nurse, the next step is to complete a Master of Mental Health in nursing.

Southern Cross University’s flexible, world-class online Master of Mental Health Nursing is the first postgraduate program of its kind. The course takes two years to complete, part time, and could revolutionise your career.

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