An introduction to mental health nursing

September 21, 2016

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Mental health nursing is the speciality of nursing that focuses on treating individuals of all ages who are experiencing short-term or long-term mental illness or psychological distress, such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, dementia or psychosis. Mental health nurses undergo highly specialised training that qualifies them to work in this field.

Role of a mental health nurse

Mental illnesses may be triggered by several different events. It could be because of a divorce, the death of someone close to them, changes in personal or professional circumstances or alcohol and drug abuse. Mental health nurses work closely with their patients to promote psychological and emotional wellbeing.

In this role, you will be working with the same patients over extended periods of time as you help them comprehend their mental health condition and teach them how to manage their symptoms and how to recognise potential triggers that could exacerbate their condition.

Exactly how long you work with each individual and the type and amount of support you offer will differ depending on their unique circumstances and their ability to understand and cope with the reality of their situation.

Some of the more common tasks that mental health nurses perform include but are not limited to:

  • Assessing patients’ mental health
  • Identifying the trigger and exact nature of the mental illness
  • Administering medication if necessary
  • Offering patients support and assistance so they can participate in everyday activities
  • Developing, implementing and overseeing customised behaviour modification programs

More often than not, mental health nurses also work with their patients’ families, offering advice, counselling and education about the role they play in their loved one’s recovery.

Workplace settings

Mental health nurses work across a full range of clinical and services settings. Depending on the kind of work you are drawn towards, you could choose to work in a hospital or in the community in a metropolitan, regional, rural or remote area in Australia.

Within a hospital setting, mental health nurses typically work in the psychiatric intensive care unit, psychiatric ward or specialist unit dealing with eating disorders.

In a community setting, these specialists often work in aged homes, residential centres, GP surgery, community healthcare centres, prisons and patients’ homes.

Essential attributes for the role

The biggest challenge that mental health nurses face is the absence of any visible symptoms. This makes it infinitely more difficult to pinpoint the severity of the illness and sometimes even the exact nature of the illness, especially since symptoms of multiple conditions overlap with each other.

Your first task with most patients will be to identify the condition. This is easier to do when there is a definite trigger. At other times, you will have to provide advice, support and assistance despite the lack of any tangible cues.

To be able to help your patients, you must be patient, compassionate and empathetic. You will also need to have excellent communication and interpersonal skills and be non-judgmental. Advanced emotional maturity is another essential trait for anyone considering a career in this speciality.

How to become a mental health nurse in Australia

An undergraduate degree in nursing will qualify you to practice as a nurse in most mental health settings but not in the capacity of a specialist mental health nurse. To work as a mental health nurse you will need to complete postgraduate study at Graduate Diploma or Masters Level in mental health nursing.

Additional training in specific therapies will qualify you to practice in specialised areas such as couple, paediatric or family therapy.


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Gap Medics provides year-round hospital work experience for people aged 16 and over. Our shadowing placements offer a unique insight into the work of doctors, nurses, midwives and dentists – helping students to focus their career aspirations before embarking upon medical training.