What is a mental health nurse and what do they do?

Australia desperately needs more mental health nurses to support people with mental illness. Read on to find out what this interesting nursing specialty is all about.

An illustration of a two people in white coats caring for an oversized brain


Mental health nurses, sometimes called psychiatric nurses, are highly trained specialists who focus on the psychological and emotional health and wellbeing of their patients. They work alongside other healthcare professionals to ensure that patients and their families receive holistic care.

What is mental health nursing?

The role of a mental health nurse is to support people who are dealing with mental illness or emotional distress. Mental health nurses have all the training of a generalist nurse, plus additional training in different mental illnesses and disorders. This means they can assess a patient’s overall physical and mental wellbeing and recommend a path towards wellness.

Mental health nurses work in a wide variety of settings, and many specialise even further to focus on areas like aged care, children and young people, eating disorders, problematic drug and alcohol use, trauma or emergency care. Besides working in hospitals, they are also employed in community health centres, rehabilitation facilities, prisons and with GPs in private practices.

The work can be physically and emotionally challenging, but it is also varied and rewarding. It involves working closely with patients from diverse backgrounds and helping them manage their symptoms and get on the road to recovery.

Why mental health nursing is important

One in five Australians experience a mental health issue each year, and nearly half of all Australians require treatment in their lifetime. Despite this, there are workforce shortages across the mental health sector, including in mental health nursing.

The Department of Health has projected that by 2030 Australia will have only 40% of the mental health nurses it needs. With close to 25,000 mental health nurses currently working in Australia, that’s a lot of roles to fill.

Mental health nurses play a vital role in Australia’s mental health system, and they will become even more important as reforms move the system towards one that is more accessible and individualised to the patient.

What qualities do you need to be a mental health nurse?

Patience and empathy

As a mental health nurse, you will spend a lot of your time working face to face with people who are vulnerable, and often marginalised. Patience, empathy, compassion and excellent listening skills are absolutely essential to the role.


You will need to be able to remain calm under pressure, particularly if you are working in emergency services or in a psychiatric setting where patients might act out. The ability to defuse tense situations will also come in handy.


Effective relationship building skills are also important, as you will be liaising with other healthcare professionals frequently to coordinate patient care and make sure your clients are matched with the right services for their needs.


Equally important is the ability to properly look after yourself. Healthcare workers of all kinds are prone to burnout, and spending most of your time with people who are in distress can take its toll. Self-care and strong work/life boundaries are an absolute must.

What qualifications do you need to work in mental health?

A standard nursing qualification is all you need to get started in the mental health sector, but to specialise in mental health you will need to do further training.

If you're an enrolled nurse

Enrolled nurses can build specialist knowledge and skills through an Advanced Diploma of Nursing (Mental Health). They can also opt to complete a Bachelor of Nursing and become a registered nurse, which opens up more opportunities.

If you're a registered nurse

A number of online mental health degrees are available for nurses who want to specialise in mental health. These postgraduate courses are generally only open to registered nurses who already work in the field, so you may need to provide proof of employment to gain entry.

After earning a Graduate Certificate, Graduate Diploma or Master of Mental Health Nursing, you may be eligible to become a Credentialed Mental Health Nurse through the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses (ACMHN). Being able to use this title signals to employers and clients that you have completed training at the highest level. A list of recognised qualifications and the criteria for becoming credentialed is available on the ACMHN website.

Once you become a working mental health nurse, you will also be encouraged to complete short courses to push your career even further. These courses can help you specialise in areas such as drug and alcohol rehabilitation, child and adolescent mental health, or psychiatric care.

How long does it take to become a mental health nurse in Australia?

You can work in mental health early in your career as an enrolled or registered nurse, so, strictly speaking, the answer to that question is two or three years.

On the other hand, to become a Credentialed Mental Health Nurse through the ACMHN, you will need to: 

  • Become a registered nurse
  • Complete at least one year of specialist mental health postgraduate study
  • Earn three years of mental health experience as a registered nurse 

It may take a lot of work to become a specialist mental health nurse, but the reward is making a lasting difference to people’s lives.


Considering a career as a mental health nurse? Explore online postgraduate courses available with leading universities.  


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