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Editorial

Looking back to the future of the mental health nursing profession

Neil Brimblecombe reflects on how practitioners’ roles have evolved over the years

Neil Brimblecombe reflects on how practitioners roles have evolved over the years

The last year has been a tough one for the NHS and for mental health nurses, and the next will undoubtedly bring further challenges. Amidst this turmoil, reflecting on how mental health nursing roles have changed and how they will continue to do so seems timely.

From being a hospital-bound profession, the first community psychiatric nursing posts were established in the 1950s, and now half of all mental health nurses work in community services. Where once there were only community mental health teams, there are now numerous community specialist teams.

The sheer range of roles that mental health nurses can take up undoubtedly makes neat and unique definitions of the profession difficult

Neil Brimblecombe reflects on how practitioners’ roles have evolved over the years

How mental health nurse practitioners’ roles have evolved over the years
Picture: iStock

The last year has been a tough one for the NHS and for mental health nurses, and the next will undoubtedly bring further challenges. Amidst this turmoil, reflecting on how mental health nursing roles have changed and how they will continue to do so seems timely.

From being a hospital-bound profession, the first community psychiatric nursing posts were established in the 1950s, and now half of all mental health nurses work in community services. Where once there were only community mental health teams, there are now numerous community specialist teams.

The sheer range of roles that mental health nurses can take up undoubtedly makes neat and unique definitions of the profession difficult

Ambitious national workforce plans aim for mental health nurses to enter other new roles, for example, working with ambulance services and in mental health homelessness services.

Mental health nurses are in a strong position to fill new advanced clinical practice roles

New skills have increasingly been adopted by mental health nurses – approximately one in 25 is qualified as a nurse prescriber and many others have psychological treatment qualifications. Services are being encouraged to create new advanced clinical practice roles to lead complex care – and mental health nurses are in a strong position to fill such posts. One in 150 is already a nurse consultant.

This range of roles and skills potentially supports nurses to improve services, as well as providing them with rewarding and varied careers. However, the national context remains one of staff shortages and limited funds for higher level training, although, conversely, there are some positive signs, with the growth in applications for nurse training and additional funding being made available for mental health services.

The sheer range of roles that mental health nurses can take up undoubtedly makes neat and unique definitions of the profession difficult. But far more important is allowing nurses opportunities to make the greatest difference possible to the lives of service users.


Neil Brimblecombe (@NeilBrimblecom1) is professor of mental health at London South Bank University, and consultant editor of Mental Health Practice

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