The mental health nursing community is divided over whether to change its model of education. Many experts believe that it would be useful to give every nursing student more general nursing skills, and then get them to specialise in either mental or physical health in their final year.
Some mental health nurses insist that in the current system nurses specialise early in their careers, which ensures they are better equipped to treat patients with mental health problems. Others think it will divert potential registered mental health nurses to the general nursing workforce.
Both arguments are convincing. Those caring for patients with mental health issues need to recognise and to some extent treat physical health problems. And nurses looking after patients with physical health problems need to identify when those patients have a mental health problem.
But I wonder if this suggested change to nurse education, recommended in The Shape of Caring Review, is solving a different problem. Is it about creating a breed of ‘super nurses’ who can do anything, because we haven’t got enough nurses to do everything?
There is a shortage of nurses in all specialties, but it appears to be felt more acutely in hospitals, where many patients could fall, be left in soiled or wet beds, or wait far too long for pain relief. However, that is probably because the impact of under-resourcing there is more visible than in mental health settings.
Many mental health care providers also struggle to recruit enough nurses. While politicians wax lyrical about parity of esteem between mental and physical health, that seems to be more of a pipe dream than a reality. And I fear any move away from dedicated, specialist mental health nurse training will distract nursing talent from where it is badly needed.
I appreciate that those in charge want a flexible workforce. But is that right for patients and service users, who prefer to be cared for by nurses with the right skills to provide the care they need?
Mental health training can’t be shoehorned into a few hours, and to suggest it can belies the expertise needed by this part of the profession. Change is good, and needed. But let’s ensure that in making those changes we don’t underestimate the talent we need in all areas of nursing.