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Mental health nursing should be a direct-entry degree

Photo: Health Times Magazine
As the number of Australians dealing with mental health challenges increases, so too does the demand for qualified mental health nurses.

In its current state, mental health nursing is a specialised field of nursing, which focuses on the care of people with mental health illness or distress.

While registered or enrolled nurses can work within a mental health setting, becoming qualified as a mental health nurse requires post graduate tertiary education.

But the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses (ACMHN) believes that direct-entry mental health nursing degrees are crucial to appropriately respond to mental health related challenges in Australia.

The ACMHN also welcomes recommendations in the Productivity Commission’s 2019 Draft Report, which was written in response to a review of mental health services in Australia.
One of those recommendations was that the number of specialist mental health nurses practicing in Australia — in GP clinics, community health services, and aged care facilities — needs to significantly increase.

The ACMHN also suggests that numbers of specialist mental health nurses could be increased through the development of a three year direct entry undergraduate degree in mental health nursing, similar to that of midwifery.

Even if this was to come to pass though, there is still merit in the introduction of a specialist registration system for nurses with advanced qualifications in mental health.

Progressing the training and education framework for mental health nurses in Australia is timely and crucial, the organisation says, as those suffering from mental health continues to grow.

The most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) National Health Survey reported increased rates of mental illness, including:
  • 13 per cent of Australian adults are experiencing high or very high levels of psychological distress
  • 20.1 per cent of Australian adults reported a mental or behavioural condition
  • 13.1 per cent of Australian adults had an anxiety-related condition, and
  • 10.4 per cent of Australian adults had depression or feelings of depression.
Midwifery has long been a specialised direct entry nursing degree, with midwives servicing a similar proportion of the population to those reporting to have mental health related issues.

According to the ACMHN, in the same year that the abovementioned survey was released, 309,142 births were recorded, which was 13% of the population – comparable with those with mental health issues.

“In addition to the data available on mental health statistics, one only has to glance at the media each day to know that mental health in Australia is a growing issue and training specialised practitioners to manage and treat patients is crucial,” says ACMHN Executive Director, Operations, Stephen Jackson.

“We need to ensure that we are putting the measures in place to train those who can support and care for Australians affected by mental health,” he says.

Psychotherapist Dr Karen Phillip agrees there are not enough mental health experts to service the growing number of Australians suffering from mental health issues.

“We have a continued increase in mental and emotional health issues in Australia,” says Dr Phillip.

“People are becoming more aware of mental health and are more actively using mental health services.

“We also find increasing pressures are pushing people to the brink of emotional overload and breakdown.”

Dr Phillip says while Australia has sufficient counsellors, psychotherapists and hypnotherapists, these practitioners are not covered by Medicare, meaning those suffering emotional health issues are taking the places of those with severe mental health issues, resulting in a deficit of acute mental health practitioners.

“We need more front line accessible practitioners.

“While we have Lifeline, Beyond Blue, etc, all with counsellor support, we need more counselling and psychotherapy on the ground.

“Nurses are at the front line in many cases, therefore if more nurses were specifically trained in mental health issues they could more appropriately diagnose, treat, refer and support patients faster.”

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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 (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.