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Urgent changes needed to save mental health nursing, says HEE

Urgent changes needed to save mental health nursing, says HEE

A report by Health Education England (HEE) into the recruitment and retention of mental health nurses warns that ‘if changes are not made immediately, there is a high risk this profession will be lost.’

The vacancy rates of mental health nurses are at high levels, with increasing numbers of nurses leaving the workforce, HEE has warned.

Vacancy rates for nurses in mental health trusts vary between 12% in the North East and Yorkshire, and 20% in the East of England. Mental health trusts account for 28%, or just over 11,300, of all vacancies in nursing.

Leaver rates are also increasing. Having dropped to below 6% during the initial stages of the pandemic, leaver rates are now at 6.9% – levels last seen in 2017-18. ‘This means there is a risk vacant nursing posts will not be filled by nurses, but instead by non-nursing new roles,’ HEE has said.

‘If changes are not made immediately, there is a high risk this profession will be lost,’ it added.

In its report, Commitment and Growth: Advancing Mental Health Nursing Now and for the Future, HEE makes eight system-wide recommendations, including:

  • Ensuring mental health nurses are supported and developed when transitioning from student to newly registered nurse.
  • Making mental health nursing more of an attractive and accessible profession, with clear career development pathways and opportunities at all levels.
  • Supporting professional development so the workforce has time and access to high quality evidence-based training.
  • Identifying and promoting the core skills of mental health nurses in all practice settings and in direct response to patients’ needs.

The workforce review subgroup on mental health nursing in England, chaired by Baroness Watkins of Tavistock, established three task and finish groups made up of mental health nurses, clinical and policy experts, and people who have lived experience of mental illness and use of services.

These three groups looked at three key areas – mental health nursing and serious mental illness, children and young people’s mental health, and improving population and public health outcomes.

The report says there must be ‘a renewed focus’ on supporting and developing newly registered mental health nurses, as ‘this is a time of extreme stress and pressure,’ and NRN are most likely to leave the mental health nursing profession during the first two years post registration due to ‘poor experiences in the workplace.’

There must also be ‘a renewed focus on identifying and promoting the core skills of mental health nurses within all practice settings,’ the report says. ‘Today, mental health nurses practice in a multitude of settings’ and there has been an ‘erosion’ of the ‘nurse’, merging into a more generic and underdefined ‘mental health practitioner’ or ‘care coordinator’ role.

In terms of career progression, the report acknowledges ‘it has long been known that, for nurses in mental health, a clear and concise career pathway has been lacking. Developing the way we recruit and retain mental health nurses will positively support nurses to remain in the profession.’

Professor Mark Radford, chief nurse at HEE, said: ‘Mental health nursing is a phenomenal career that offers the expertise, knowledge and skills to have a life-changing impact on individuals and our communities. For decades, this profession has been a critical part of our national health and social care system, so it is therefore vital we look at the challenges facing our nurses and what can be done to address them.’

This comes as the Government is seeking views from healthcare professionals including nurses, the public and those with lived experience of mental health to inform its new 10-year mental health plan.  

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