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”
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”.
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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.
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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”
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.