National mental health director Claire Murdoch says future of nursing is bright

Claire Murdoch originally wanted to have a career as an actor and dancer, but after five ‘enjoyable’ years of travelling the UK in semi-professional productions, she decided that her talents lay elsewhere. 

Claire Murdoch originally wanted to have a career as an actor and dancer, but after five ‘enjoyable’ years of travelling the UK in semi-professional productions, she decided that her talents lay elsewhere. After seeing an advertisement in a women’s magazine, her career took a change of direction.

Claire Murdoch

Now, 30-odd years later, she is the chief executive of one of the largest integrated community and mental health trusts as well as being NHS England’s national mental health director.

‘I decided I wanted to get a proper job. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to help people. I saw an advert in a magazine for mental health nurses describing these people with problems and how mental health nurses made the difference to their lives.

'At the time I didn’t have the first clue that there was such a thing as mental health nursing, but I went along to the Hackney Hospital in London, which was my local psychiatric hospital, to spend time with the nurses and matron there. The rest, as they say, is history.’


more women will have perinatal mental healthcare by 2021 

After training at Friern Hospital in London and qualifying in 1983, Ms Murdoch was quickly promoted to ward sister, to the annoyance of some of her colleagues. 

‘I was youngish. I became a ward sister after only a year as a staff nurse, which I’m sure is quite wrong looking back, but I thought it was a marvellous opportunity. It didn’t go down very well with peers at the hospital. They used to call me “that girl” or “TG,” although I was 27 at the time.’

Some staff were upset at her new fangled ideas, including making all staff work across the three shifts – earlies, lates and nights – because they disrupted the comfortable patterns of working that had gone on at the hospital for generations.

‘It was an eye-opener for me – a warning about how quickly kind, well-meaning human beings can slip into what’s comfortable and convenient for them, rather than the patients. I saw the best and the worst of everything in those wards.

'There was a lot of love within those walls. Just having those beautiful grounds…having that sense of asylum and a place to be very unwell in is something I mourn the passing of. If you are unwell in many units today you have little connection with space or nature and all the things you might think you want if you’re unwell.

‘I had the privilege of speaking at the closing ceremony at Friern Hospital in 1993. There were thousands of people there, it was a huge moment in the evolution of mental healthcare. I was the most junior person speaking.’

Community care

The hospital closure programme in the 1980s heralded the start of community care, which Ms Murdoch says is now in its third generation.


more children will have access to psychological therapy services by 2021

‘That was the end of an era. What followed was the first generation of community care – more day hospitals, more community psychiatric nurses and residential homes. The second generation included the assertive outreach home treatment teams and the National Service Frameworks; they advanced care enormously, giving real choice for people in a crisis and an alternative to always being in a ward.

'And then we realised that there were some gaps and that people didn’t necessarily fit into a crisis pathway or a long-term condition pathway. Thinking is maturing again. We are starting to think about more integrated care across pathways, and I suspect we are now going into a third generation of care, where we seriously think about the whole person and look at the needs of the individual.’

Ms Murdoch says that the priorities in the mental health implementation plan, part of the government's Five Year Forward View, mean that by 2021, 30,000 more women will have perinatal mental health care, 70,000 more children and 600,000 more people will have access to psychological therapy services, home treatment teams will be strengthened and 280,000 people living with serious mental illness will have annual physical health checks.

Ambitious plans

She admits the plan is ambitious and that there is, and will continue to be a skills and workforce shortage. But she is upbeat about the future of the profession.

‘The future of mental health nursing is incredibly bright – and I’m not unrealistic about the financial situation. I say to anyone who will listen to me that it’s a growth agenda and we want more mental health nurses. We want you back in practice if you left because you were overwhelmed, and we want new blood coming through training. We are going to be bringing many more apprentices into services and nurse associates.

'These are ways in which we can whet people’s appetites, give them a love of the profession and what they could be, and get them into training by growing our own.’

'It’s a privilege for people like me who have seen all of this in our careers. People said Friern Hospital would never close, and I still tell staff who come to inductions at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust that they should never say never. Nurses should be curious about what will come next, because I suspect we now stand on the brink of another journey, and we have at least as far to go over the next 30 years as we have been over the past 30 years.'

Who is Claire Murdoch?

Claire Murdoch trained as a mental health nurse at Friern Hospital in London, qualifying in the 1980s. Since 2007 she has been chief executive of the Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust, one of the largest integrated community and mental health trusts in the country.

In April 2016, she was appointed as the NHS England national mental health director, a role in which she will oversee the implementation of the Five Year Forward View for Mental Health

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