A career in mental health care can be extremely rewarding as you get the opportunity to make an enormous difference in someone’s quality of life. As the number of people in contact with mental health services grows, there are lots of opportunities and a wide range of career paths available in the sector.
You can choose one of two paths:
Qualified mental health nurse
As a nurse, you can work in a care home with the elderly or dementia patients or could work in a community nursing team based at a GP practice, hospital or health centre.
Support worker or care assistant
These roles have lower entry requirements, and you can then work your way up from there should you want to. There are mental health support worker jobs in areas such as education, residential care, community care, substance abuse and rehabilitation.
What are the main duties working in mental health?
As a mental health nurse or support worker, you will be involved in a wide range of duties, depending on your level of expertise:
- Talking to patients about their issues and discussing the best way to plan and deliver their care.
- Building relationships with patients to encourage trust and listen to their needs and concerns.
- Understanding and responding to distressed patients providing comfort and reassurance.
- Helping patients manage their emotions.
- Preparing and participating in therapy sessions and peer support groups.
- Organising social events aimed at developing patients' social skills.
- Preparing and maintaining patient records and producing care plans and risk assessments.
- Administering medication.
- Working with patients' families and carers to help educate them about their mental health problems.
What qualifications do I need to work in mental health?
To become a registered mental health nurse, there are three main routes:
- University course
- Degree apprenticeship
- Specialist course run by a professional body
- You need to be registered with the Nursing & Midwifery Council (NMC) to work as a mental health nurse in the UK and most of these roles are carried out working for the NHS, in a GP practice, community health centre or residential care. You could also get a job in the private sector with a private healthcare company or charity.
- To become a support worker, there are no set qualification requirements, but you will need a CRB check, and sometimes an NVQ 2 / 3 or equivalent in health and social care.
- Given you’ll need to follow care plans and write reports on patients regularly, you’ll need good literacy and numeracy skills. You may therefore be asked for a certain number of GCSEs or equivalent.
- Mental health support workers mostly work in residential facilities and psychiatric hospitals. But there are also increasing opportunities to work in the community too.
Volunteering and work experience
Volunteering in a mental health charity or gaining work experience in a hospital is a great way to see whether it’s a career for you and also shows your commitment to potential employers.
What skills and attributes do I need for a career in mental health?
Working in mental health is not easy and it takes a particular set of skills, the right attitude and values to succeed.
First and foremost, you will need to have a genuine desire to care for those with emotional difficulties and challenging behaviour. You will need to be resilient and prepared for whatever situation comes your way.
- Communication skills
Being able to communicate effectively and liaise with your team is essential to maintaining a high level of care for patients.
- Empathy and compassion
Empathy and compassion are really important. Being able to put yourself in your patient’s shoes is one way of understanding why they may be feeling the way they are and doing the things they’re doing.
You’ll need to be able to deal with unpredictable behaviour and being able to keep calm in sometimes stressful situations is important.
- Be prepared to work hard
Learning and training to work in mental health can take at least 3-4 years (to become a mental health nurse). The work itself is quite demanding but also extremely rewarding, so you need to be certain that you’re in it for the long haul.
What are the career prospects in mental health?
There are lots of opportunities to develop your career in mental health. This is partly due to the increase in demand for mental health services in the last few years.
Mental health is a diverse area and there are many opportunities to specialise in certain areas such as psychology, eating disorders or substance misuse.
There is also progression in terms of becoming an advanced nurse practitioner or nurse manager. There are more and more roles in the private sector opening up too, offering a whole new range of opportunities.
Watch our chat with Tracey Bell, Director of the Richmond Fellowship, a national mental health charity. Here she talks about her career path in mental health.
Further information and advice
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