Thousands more mental health nurses must be recruited and retained across the NHS to address a shortfall in the profession which has left staff and services stretched to capacity and many now under crippling and unsustainable pressure.
Mental health leaders have warned that the government must not leave the vital mental health and learning disabilities nurse workforce out in the cold when it finally publishes its imminent, long awaited and much needed workforce plan.
Leaders are concerned that without strong direction from central government and dedicated investment to help shore up a supply of new domestic nurses, mental health services will continue to run on empty with many buckling under the weight of demand.
The warning comes as new analysis by the Nuffield Trust on behalf of the NHS Confederation highlights the need for a credible plan to reduce the rates of attrition for mental health nurses during training and in their first few years of practice, as well as a clear acknowledgement that the increase in mental health nurse numbers has lagged far behind that seen in adult and children’s nursing.
Mental health leaders remain very concerned at the figures showing that mental health nursing vacancies remain stubbornly high and account for nearly a third of all nursing vacancies across the country.
At the last count nearly one in five mental health nursing posts were vacant with the percentage of those staffing gaps having increased from 13 to 18 percent between 2018 to 2022.
Leaders warn that nurses are fundamental to the delivery of mental health services across the vast array of settings they work in, so the government’s comprehensive NHS workforce plan must not shirk from including provision for a fully costed mental health workforce for the immediate, medium and long term.
Commenting on the paucity of the mental health nursing workforce Sean Duggan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation’s mental health network said:
“Mental health leaders and their teams are pulling out all the stops in what are very constrained circumstances, but they cannot be expected to solve this staffing crisis alone.
“The knock-on effect means that the mental health crisis the nation is facing will in turn become a crisis for the whole healthcare system and the country.
“This relentless pressure on mental health staff cannot be allowed to continue with the ultimate impact being on the patients who most need that care.”
Nuffield Trust senior fellow and lead report author Dr Billy Palmer said:
“Given the growing staffing gaps affecting NHS mental health services and the difficulties we face hiring to these important roles from overseas, there is an urgent imperative for the government to get the domestic recruitment of mental health nurses right.
“Unfortunately, there is no single solution that works for all, and the picture is mixed across England. We need to understand the impact on all areas of the country, with some regions, such as the East of England, particularly suffering from these staffing issues.
“Last year’s national review of mental health nursing has concrete steps for improvement, but action cannot be delayed any longer if we want these vital mental health services to be sustainable.”
Elsewhere, the analysis also identifies significant regional differences, including in the numbers of nurses relative to the size and mental health needs of the population they serve regionally, and a two-fold difference in organisational leaver rates in different areas of the country.
The data also show many mental health nurses approaching pensionable age with over half of mental health nurses aged 45 and over and one-in-five aged 55 and over.
The status of ‘mental health officer’, which many nurses who started working in the NHS before 1995 hold, often means they are eligible for retirement at the age of 55.
We are the membership organisation that brings together, supports and speaks for the whole healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The members we represent employ 1.5 million staff, care for more than 1 million patients a day and control £150 billion of public expenditure. We promote collaboration and partnership working as the key to improving population health, delivering high-quality care and reducing health inequalities.