Editorial

Mental health nursing: radical workforce review is needed

With nurse numbers failing to meet demand, a radical review of the workforce and work being done is vital, says mental health professor Neil Brimblecombe

Can the number of nurses ever keep pace with demand on mental health services?
Picture: iStock

Mental health nursing staff shortages have been recognised for a long time.

But, despite recent increases in student numbers and an increase in 3,000 nurses employed in England’s NHS since the low point of 2017, the numbers of mental health nurses only now almost reach the level of ten years ago, with vacancy levels varying from 11.4% in the north east and Yorkshire, to an eye watering 20.3% in the south east. Some new roles have been introduced, such as the nursing associate, although such roles are not yet robustly evaluated.

NHS trusts have been encouraged to offer flexibility and reduce early retirement. These interventions are probably helpful but insufficient in the context of national plans for increased nursing numbers.

Numbers of nurses being sought for ambitious workforce plans may never be met

It is a truism that for every complex human problem there is a solution that is simple, plausible and wrong, and staffing issues are certainly affected by a myriad of social, professional, financial, demographic, political and psychological factors.

If, as seems likely, the numbers of new nurses being sought for ambitious workforce plans may never be met in the context of ever-increasing demands on mental health services, then what can be done?

‘We cannot continue doing what we have always done in a world that is constantly changing and creating new demands’

First, the political and professional pressure for growth in mental health services to provide individual interventions to ever larger parts of the population should be recognised, at least partially, as being a result of societal factors. As such greater emphasis should be given to addressing attitudes and culture in society that feeds distress, combined with public health level interventions, backed up by rigorous programmes of research.

Second, a more radical review of the future of the workforce is needed. Surely it is time for all professions, including nursing, with the critical engagement of service users, to review their roles and challenge profession-centric ideas on what might constitute their unique contributions.

We cannot continue doing what we have always done in a world that is constantly changing and creating new demands.


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