A mental health nurse helping a patient.
A mental health nurse helping a patient.

The role of a mental health nurse: Demand, duties and study pathways

Mental Health
Mental Health Nursing

The role of a mental health nurse is changing and adapting to meet the increasing needs of those in our community. Mental health professionals are in great demand across Australia and so, too, is the nation’s need for mental health support and services. 

We’ll explore why the role of a mental health nurse has never been more vital in Australia. For nurses considering a shift or specialisation, adding mental health nursing skills could be the next step in their careers. 

The pressing issues with mental health care in Australia 

Mental health has always been integral to our overall health and wellbeing. And in a growing healthcare industry, the demand for mental health nursing skills has never been greater. 

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW), one in five adults aged 16–85 (21 per cent),  and one in seven children and adolescents aged 4–17 (14 per cent) experienced a mental health disorder in the previous 12 months.

Carly Dober is the principal psychologist at Enriching Lives Psychology. With more than a decade of experience working in mental health, she sees beyond the Australian mental health statistics and the real people behind them. 

“Behavioural issues, school refusal and eating disorders have skyrocketed,” she says. “Anxiety, depression and all rates of mental illness have risen. And long-term ambiguous financial stress, physical health issues and other things contribute to mental health problems.” 

Ensuring people have support for these types of issues and more, is just one part of the role of a mental health nurse. 

Why we need mental health nurses 

Mental health nurses provide invaluable support in the mental health system. However, AIHW found that, of the health professionals Australians consulted regarding their mental health, nurses were some of the least accessed. According to the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Journal, by the year 2030, Australia is projected to face a substantial shortage of mental health nurses, estimated to be around 18,500.  

There are other reasons for issues with mental health care in Australia, predominantly the barriers that people face when seeking mental health support. In 2022, 11 per cent of people seeking mental health care couldn’t receive it for various reasons. And according to Dober, accessibility and affordability are key contributors. 

“We know there’s a cost-of-living crisis right now, but these issues preceded the crisis,” she says. “Wait lists were already blowing out before the pandemic and instead of waiting weeks to receive care, it’s now months.” 

Furthermore, people living in remote and rural areas may struggle even more to connect with the support they need. And when this demand for mental health nurses and other professionals isn’t met, it can take a toll on the community as well as individuals. 

“If people can’t get help when they need it,” says Dober, “their symptoms will linger and worsen. Communities can really suffer.” 

For registered nurses looking to upskill or make a shift in their careers, mental health is a vital specialisation worth considering. 

What does a mental health nurse do?

So what does a mental health nurse do? The role of a mental health nurse is varied and, depending on the setting and position, may include the following responsibilities: 

  • Promoting and educating about mental health 
  • Assessing patients’ mental health 
  • Delivering treatment, including counselling and other strategies 
  • Managing patients’ records 
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals to coordinate patient care 
  • Supporting patients and their families 
  • Working with patients to plan recovery 
  • Medication administration.

Mental health nurses deliver care in many different settings. These include mental health units in hospitals and nursing homes, community settings, psychiatric hospitals and private practices. Likewise, these nurses can work in many positions, with nurse educators, researchers and practitioners being equipped to specialise in mental health. 

Regarded as a rewarding vocation, the role offers versatility in terms of the settings and the roles on offer, along with the skills and qualifications that nurses come to possess—now and in the future. 

How to become a mental health nurse 

To become a mental health nurse, you must first complete a recognised nursing or midwifery degree, which qualifies you to become a registered nurse or midwife. Next, you can register as a nurse and gain clinical experience.

From there, you can specialise in mental health nursing by undertaking a postgraduate qualification, such as VU Online’s Master of Mental Health Nursing. In this degree, you’ll acquire evidence-based skills allowing you to excel in the role of a mental health nurse and provide better health outcomes for the public. With 12 units, including one elective, you’ll study subjects such as: 

  • Effective Trauma-Informed Care 
  • Recovery-Oriented Mental Health 
  • Evidence and Research for Practice 
  • Mental Health in Later Life 
  • Pharmacology and Therapeutics in Mental Health 

Following VU Online’s postgraduate Block Model, you can complete your masters by studying one unit every seven weeks. For part-time students, the qualification can be earned in just two years, depending on unit availability and the student’s study path. 

As an experienced registered nurse, studying online offers many benefits. The flexibility of where and when you learn, a more manageable schedule and a modern, relevant education that can be applied in real-time to your career are just a few. 

Where to next? 

Once complete, the Master of Mental Health Nursing from VU Online meets the education requirements for the ACMHN Credential. As the national standard for recognising specialist mental health nurses, this degree moves you one step closer to credentialing. 

From there, a registered nurse needs at least 14 months of experience since completing a specialist mental health nursing qualification, or three years’ experience as a registered nurse working in mental health. With the appropriate experience, nurses can then apply to become credentialed, qualified mental health nurse specialists. 

A rewarding future awaits 

The role of a mental health nurse is varied and rewarding, providing the specialist care that Australians need.

Discover what a career as a mental health nurse entails and find out where VU Online’s Master of Mental Health Nursing could lead you. Speak to a Student Enrolment Advisor today and find a flexible learning path that works for you.