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Exclusive: Bursary loss 'poses threat' to better mental health care

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Workforce planning improvements called for in a major independent review of mental health services in England could be jeopardised by national plans to scrap bursaries for students and reforms to the way nurses are trained, experts in the field have warned.

The Five Year Forward View for Mental Health report, which was published earlier this week, said NHS services were “inadequate”, which had in recent years led to worsening outcomes such as higher suicide rates.

“It looks as though we are moving towards having fewer skilled, qualified mental health nurses in the workforce”

Alan Simpson

A shortage of qualified staff was highlighted as a problem. As a result, some services were cancelling up to 10% of appointments, while demand for temporary mental health nursing staff had risen by two thirds since the beginning of 2013-14, it said.

In one if its 58 recommendations, the report called for a multi-disciplinary workforce strategy to be drawn up by 2016 – led by national workforce planning body Health Education England – to help make mental health the “profession of choice”.

But these efforts will be threatened by the government’s plan to introduce a loans system for healthcare students, warned Alan Simpson, professor of collaborative mental health nursing at City University London.

He said the changes to student nurse funding would be “massively problematic” for those wanting to specialise in mental health, because the branch particularly attracted older students or those with a previous degree.

Alan Simpson: 'Peer support in mental health needs a welcome, not wariness'

Alan Simpson: ‘Peer support in mental health needs a welcome, not wariness’

Alan Simpson

Financial commitments from family responsibilities or previous loans meant the new system would deter applicants leading to less people training as mental health nurses, he said.

This would be on top of the 10% drop in the number of qualified nurses working in psychiatry in the past five years, which was recently confirmed in official figures, he added.

“What’s concerning at the moment is we’ve got a combination of factors which mean it looks as though we are moving towards having fewer skilled, qualified mental health nurses in the workforce,” he said.

“We have seen a 10% drop in numbers of mental health nurses. We are now seeing they [the government] are getting rid of the bursary and introducing a loans system for trainees. I think that is going to be massively problematic,” said Professor Simpson.

He said workforce planning was “crucial”, as was ensuring staff were supported by employers to complete ongoing training, which was often not the case.

“A reduced number of people coming into the mental health field… would completely undermine that element in the report”

Dave Munday

Proposals for reforming undergraduate nurse degrees – which could see a longer period of general training before specialising in areas such as mental health, adult, learning disability, or children’s nursing – also risk undermining the taskforce’s report, it has been claimed.

The plans were put forward in a major independent review of nurse and healthcare assistant education and training last year – the Shape of Caring Review – and are now being looked at by HEE and the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

Dave Munday, professional officer at union Unite, said mental health nurses were concerned the changes meant there could be less focus on their speciality, meaning fewer nurses would end up practising in that field.

He added: “The taskforce report is talking about the importance of having good education and attracting professionals that are going to be excellent into mental health so they can become experts.

“If the Shape of Caring review did result in a reduced number of people coming into the mental health field, then it would completely undermine that element in the report,” he said.

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • It's all pretty obvious really, we know the number of mental health nurses and students are pretty low anyway. We know expectations of role are not being met and the implementation of quantified work task measurements implied by NHS Improvement are going to make it worse. The nature of the role is in the title but unfortunately the demand for total care defies logic of capability and common sense, in a sense holistic care needs other professional input not just the overarching responsibility of a mental health nurse. I'm sure many mental health students to nurses enter the role on the primary premise of safely supporting therapeutic interaction and engagment, with providing direct care as required. Instead many of us are acting as If we're social workers, secretaries, government social police and legal administrators. Instead of what we should be doing we're too busy doing the better paid psychiatrists/ psychologists risk assessments, manager's job, the occupational therapists & social workers needs assessments and attempting to decipher badly written legislation such as DoLs, capacity and ever-changing MHA. It takes the biscuit that instead of direct engagement and interaction were often doing others peoples jobs and then getting the blame for it. The issue isn't just the bursary its the fact that the put off is increasingly having to take responsibility for everyone else in an increasingly very hostile anti-nurse culture. Yes sort the bursary, but sort the role too if you want more nurses. Love nursing - hate political and management interference and especially other professionals, including the police thinking they know better to what student nurses and nurses should be about. The government's neo-liberal approach to quantifiable care & its lack of provision through proper sponsored education is destroying that which can't be quantified and essentially given to those that need it. Welcome to the non-progressive dull minded modern corporate BS brand of education - if you can afford to do it. Professor get real and to add you just might be a part of the problem.

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  • I am an RMN who plan to leave mental health nursing. I can honestly say I no longer want to be an RMN because of the lack of opportunities to do further study and improve clinical skills. There is very poor investment in nurses who want to improve on their clinical skills, I do not want to be a manager I want to work with people therapeutically but this has not been happening so I have started to resent my RMN title.

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