Since its launch just two years ago, the University of Sunderland’s has revealed its Mental Health Nursing degree has grown from just a handful of students to more than 200 trainee nurses preparing for today’s challenges of mental wellbeing.

The growth in numbers, academics believe could be down to a much more open discussion surrounding the issues of mental health taking place across all areas of society, as well as global calls for greater investment and the Government’s own pledge to put mental health high on the agenda.

Sunderland’s BSc (Hons) Mental Health Nursing Practice is a three-year degree leading to registration as a Mental Health Nursing with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). The programme has been developed in collaboration with local mental health trusts.

The skills involved to become a mental health nurse have never been more important as we continue to live through a global pandemic, as fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children.

Clare Brizzolara, a senior lecturer at Sunderland with a background in mental health nursing, gives an insight into the role of these specialist students, ahead of World Mental Health Day (Oct 10), and raises awareness of a forgotten group of patients, as well as looking to potentially recruit those in the hospitality industry facing redundancy for their unique social skills.

“The role of the mental health nurse is incredibly diverse,” says Clare. “It’s a common misconception that our skills are just psychological, however, we are not therapists or psychologists, we use clinical and physical skills to be therapeutic in our approach, so you are not just attending to someone’s psychological wellbeing. You are looking after the complete wellbeing of someone physically, socially and psychologically.

“You always need to rule out any physical health problems which may present as mental health issues. We would take baseline observations such as routine screening of blood, urine, blood glucose levels, endocrine disorders. For example in older people confusion or delirium can be caused by urinary tract infections, or chest infections. You must rule those things out first and or manage those conditions before looking at a complete mental health assessment.

“You have to take patient history in account, look at the context in which they’re presenting issues. We train our nurses to be competent and confident in working with and supporting a ‘whole-systems’ approach in diverse settings, ensuring the mental well-being of families and carers with a relative experiencing mental distress. Partnership working with multi-professionals and services will ensure the very best care and outcomes for those experiencing mental illness.”

While the theme of World Mental Health Day is ‘mental health for all’, Clare says often young people and the elderly are overlooked when it comes to mental health.
“We look after people across the course of their lives; it’s not just adults, you’re looking after children, and older people as well. However, they are the forgotten group, particularly in children’s mental health care, there’s a lot of work to be done in terms of wider public understanding of children’s mental health needs.”

She added: “There’s a specific skills set you need in looking after older people, they are often the forgotten generation in terms of adapting psychological therapies to support them, there are improvements, but we need to go further.”

Clare, however, believes that Sunderland is helping to create a new generation of mental health nurse, who have well-rounded skills and have a much deeper understanding of the individual experience, life, health and wellbeing which she says will create a better patient journey and help boost services.

“I have certainly noticed that the age range of this profession is now much more diverse, it used to attract more mature students, but now we are getting a lot of younger students joining us, which is great,” says Clare, who worked as a staff nurse in a regional inpatient unit for individuals experiencing eating disorders and affective disorders. She also spent eight years working as a Community Psychiatric Nurse.

Asked what makes an effective mental health nurse, Clare says: “You have to be resilient yourself and it has to be the right time in your life to do this. You are looking after poorly people and you are their guide, so you have to be in a good place yourself.

“I think right now those in the hospitality sector facing redundancy could have those transferrable skills that they can bring to this sector. It’s about looking after a person who needs that TLC when they may find themselves in a strange environment. You need to make it as pleasant as possible for people, thinking creatively to support this person. Those in hospitality have key social skills that could be transferred to this sector.”

The first group of students to graduate from the BSc (Hons) Mental Health Nursing Practice degree will be in summer 2021.

Case study Prior to becoming a full-time student at Sunderland, Jill Johnstone, 34, from Stockton-on-Tees, was a health care assistant working for Tees Esk Wear Valley Foundation Trust.

She began working in the field of mental health 12 years ago as a support worker for a community-based mental health charity before moving to NHS forensic and adults’ services five years ago as a health care assistant.

“I have always been passionate about mental health,” says Jill. “As I’d gained experience of community support work and then became a health care assistant for the NHS, training to become a qualified nurse seemed natural progression for me and became a personal goal.

“I chose Sunderland as academics work in collaboration with Tees Esk and Wear Valley NHS Trust which meant I could choose to complete placements within the Trust I would eventually be working for.

“My goal post graduation was to secure employment on an adult inpatient ward, however, during placement I spent time working with the CAMHS Crisis Team, an experience I loved so much it has given me a new direction to aim for once I graduate.”