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Mental Health Nurses must take care of their own mental health in order to take care of others

Photo: Sara Kenna
Mental Health Nurses must look after their own mental health, in order to maintain their crucial role in society, helping those with ongoing mental illness and addiction.

“An MHN can be exposed to vicarious trauma that they have to learn to deal with,” says Mental Health Nurse, Sara Kenna.

“They are also at risk of burn-out, and therefore, must look after their own mental health in the workplace.”

Ms Kenna says while staff are offered supervision to provide a forum to process their work challenges and prevent these issues occurring, it’s important for individuals to take charge of their own emotional wellbeing.

“By attending supervision, debriefing appropriately with colleagues and managers, utilising the employee assistance program, taking time out to care for and nurture themselves, not over-working, having adequate time off/away from work, making sure they switch off and don’t mentally take work home with them.”
Which can all be easier said than done.

A mental health nurse is an endorsed-enrolled nurse or a registered nurse who specialises in mental health with a minimum of 2-3 years’ experience post initial qualifications.

They generally undertake additional training and qualifications in either general mental health or a specific area of interest, such as drug and alcohol recovery.

“I have always been interested in people and why they are the way they are, such as the nature versus nurture argument,” says Ms Kenna.

“I have always wanted a career in health that helps other people and is challenging and interesting.”

As a mental health nurse, potential roles are diverse and varied, and may include:
  • A nurse on a mental health unit (providing direct care to patients),
  • A clinical nurse supervisor (providing support to junior staff and students),
  • A clinical nurse consultant (providing education, support and mental health consults on mental health units),
  • A clinical nurse educator (providing education to staff),
  • A nurse practitioner (able to prescribe medication to patients in certain circumstances, requires further study),
  • A mental health counsellor/group facilitator (requires further study), and
  • A nurse unit manager, a director of nursing or clinical services. 

Ms Kenna, now Director of Nursing at Wesley Hospital Ashfield, has had roles including a registered mental health nurse, a Nurse Unit Manager, and an Assistant Director of Clinical Services

“A mental health nurse is typically involved in providing direct care for patients.

“This includes providing emotional/psychological support, carrying out mental state and risk assessments, taking physical observations and visual observations, maintaining patient safety, administering medications, completing the admissions, discharges and care planning with patients, and documenting patient progress.

“Patients may be experiencing a wide variety of mental health issues, these may include: depression and anxiety, addiction disorders, personality/emotional dysregulation disorders, psychotic disorders, eating disorders and PTSD.”

Mental Health Nurses also play an important role in addition issues.

“They are the first point of contact for the person with the service making the assessment and also when the person is admitted to the hospital.

“The mental health nurse will take all the physical observations required to monitor a person’s withdrawal and administer any necessary medication.

“They also provide and emotional and psychological support where required.”

Due to the nature of the role, mental health nurses can experience extreme highs and lows.

“One of the most rewarding experiences is seeing a patient’s recovery, and when the patient takes the time to thank you personally for caring for them.

“I get a very deep sense of satisfaction seeing the difference I make in people’s lives. Research shows that patients report their connections with clinicians, such as mental health nurses, as the most significant thing in their recovery.

“The therapeutic relationship we develop with our patients is most often what gives the person hope, courage and the feeling of empowerment to succeed in their recovery.

“Being a part of this and sharing in their experience makes being a MHN an extremely rewarding career.”

Conversely, due to the large percentage of trauma that is often experienced by people living with mental health issues, patients are often very complex.

“However, this is not the most challenging aspect of being a mental health nurse,” says Ms Kenna.

“Instead, the thing I find most challenging is people’s ignorance surrounding mental health issues, and their lack of awareness of how complex a person’s trauma can be.

“I find a lack of compassion and understanding of this issue amongst the general public – and even amongst clinicians – the most challenging issue for me, rather than patient experiences.”

Ms Kenna also believes more government funding is required for those with mental health issues needing post-admission follow up care, including better access to psychological support for these people.

Despite the challenges, Ms Kenna says mental health nursing is perfect for those with a keen interest in people.

“But they need to be be able to relate to all different kinds of people without judgement, regardless of that persons’ behaviour.

“They also need to have the ability to understand and empathise, and take an interest in people’s life experiences to give hope to them when they have lost all hope for themselves.

“It is a brilliant career, do it!”


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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications ( and a children's author.