Skip to main content Skip to footer

How to become a mental health nurse

To become a mental health nurse in the NHS, you'll need to complete a pre-registration degree programme accredited by the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

What is a mental health nurse?

Mental health nurses work with people who have a range of mental health difficulties, including emotional distress and mental illness. They provide high-quality and trauma-informed care for people at all stages of their recovery journey. Mental health nurses work in a variety of settings, such as hospitals and the community.

Starting your career as mental health nurse

Choosing subjects at school

To get on a course that could lead to a career in nursing, useful subjects include:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Psychology
  • English
  • Maths

Speak to your guidance teacher or careers adviser about subjects offered at your school.

Work placements and volunteering

You may find it helpful to get some healthcare experience by doing a work placement or volunteering. You’ll get training, increase your knowledge, and learn new skills. This could help you when applying to college, university, or a new job with NHSScotland. Contact your local health board to find out about the work placements or volunteering opportunities available to you.  

Education and training pathway

There are many different routes to becoming a registered adult nurse.

Pre-registration undergraduate mental health nursing degree 

You can apply for an undergraduate mental health nursing degree if you have the relevant qualifications, regardless of age. You could be a school pupil, college student, career changer, or an assistant practitioner.

This pathway involves gaining a nursing degree from an NMC-accredited university. Degree programmes take 3  years full-time. When you graduate, you'll become a qualified nurse eligible to register with the NMC. You can then apply for mental health nursing roles in the NHS. 

There are 8 universities in Scotland that offer undergraduate programmes in mental health nursing, approved by the NMC:

  • Abertay University
  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
  • Robert Gordon University
  • University of Dundee
  • University of Stirling
  • University of the Highlands and Islands
  • University of the West of Scotland 

Search for pre-registration undergraduate mental health nursing degree programmes on My World of Work.

Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP)

SWAP is for adult learners who have been out of education for 3 years or more. 

The SWAP pathway offers a supportive route you can take to re-enter education and take the next steps towards a career in nursing. The one-year course will help bridge gaps in your education. 

Completing this pathway will prepare you for entry into a SWAP partnered university undergraduate nursing degree programme. Tuition fees and a bursary may be available. 

Find out more about SWAP.

Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Healthcare Practice 

You can apply for an HNC in healthcare practice if you are an existing healthcare support worker or you do not have the necessary qualifications for direct entry into an undergraduate nursing degree programme.

This pathway serves as a stepping stone towards a nursing degree. Successful completion of the HNC course may allow direct entry into the second year of an undergraduate nursing degree progress. It will help accelerate your progress towards becoming a registered nurse in NHSScotland.

Taking one year to complete, many colleges in Scotland provide the HNC Healthcare Practice qualification:

  • Edinburgh College
  • Forth Valley College
  • Glasgow Clyde College
  • North East Scotland College

Search for college courses on My World of Work.

Open University

The Open University offers options to support the career development of nursing support workers.

Certificate of Higher Education in Healthcare Practice

If you're a nursing support worker, the CertHE in Healthcare Practice at SCQF level 7 will help you develop your knowledge and understanding and learn the practical and professional skills to:

  • become an assistant practitioner
  • progress to an undergraduate mental health nursing degree programme

This nationally recognised qualification includes online study and supervised practice in your workplace.

Find out more about the CertHE in Healthcare Practice with the Open University.

Undergraduate mental health nursing degree programme

The Open University offers a 4-year part-time undergraduate mental health nursing degree programme at SCQF level 10. You'll combine working in your existing nursing support worker or assistant practitioner role with online study. The distance learning approach includes local placements to provide hands-on experience and training.

The Scottish Government covers all tuition fees.

Find out more about Open University nursing degrees.

Pre-registration postgraduate mental health nursing degree 

To be eligible for the post-graduate pathway, you'll need an undergraduate degree in any subject. The course takes 3 years to complete. 

During this full-time course, you will split your time between on-campus learning and placements in hospitals and community settings.

There are 3 universities in Scotland that offer a pre-registration post-graduate programme in mental health nursing:

  • Edinburgh Napier University
  • University of Dundee
  • University of the West of Scotland

Search for pre-registration postgraduate mental health nursing degree programmes on My World of Work.

Return to nursing practice pathway

If you were previously registered with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the return to practice pathway is right for you. You’ll need an NMC statement of entry confirming your previous registration. 

You'll also need to meet the NMC's practice hours requirements before you start your readmission application.  

If you're unable to meet the practice hours requirement, you can complete one of the following to update your knowledge and skills: 

  • A return to practice course combines theoretical and practical application to update your nursing skills. It covers a full range of topics so that you'll be up-to-date with healthcare standards and protocols. Depending on practice hours and pace of study, it takes 14 to 26 weeks.
  • The Test of Competence will evaluate your knowledge and skills against NMC standards. 

Find out more about readmission requirements.

Paramedic, Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary

The Paramedic, Nursing and Midwifery Student Bursary (PNMSB) scheme is managed by the Student Awards Agency Scotland (SAAS) on behalf of the Scottish Government. 

It includes a non-repayable bursary of £10,000 that’s not income assessed.

You must meet the eligibility criteria: 

  • you ordinarily reside in Scotland
  • your course leads to a degree or diploma of higher education in Scotland

Other bursaries or grants may be available depending on your circumstances.

Find out more about SASS funding for nursing students.

Get to know the role

As a mental health nurse, you will deliver a range of therapies to support a person's recovery. You'll help people who need mental health suport to understand the nature of their illness and how to cope in a crisis.

Relationship building is an important skill for a mental health nurse. You'll build long-lasting relationships with the people you are treating as well as their families and carers. You'll also need to understand how each person feels regardless of their background or what challenges they face.

An important part of a mental health nurse's role is being able to educate and challenge the stigma around mental health. Discrimination can become a barrier to people's recovery from mental illness.

As a mental health nurse, you are a highly skilled professional who has responsibility for the decisions you make within your role.

Your main tasks cold include: 

  • develop trusting, therapeutic relationships to allow people with mental health problems to access care and treatment
  • provide assessment for a variety of mental health presentations including for people who are at risk of self-harm or suicide
  • plan care and treatment that will improve peoples mental health
  • advocate for people with mental health problems to ensure they feel listened to and supported by others, and their rights are upheld
  • be an advocate for mental health stigma and awareness
  • contribute to the physical and mental wellbeing of people with mental health problems
  • prevention and early intervention to allow people to build social and emotional skills to improve quality of life

As well as being caring, empathetic and compassionate, mental health nurses develop and use the following skills:

  • communication
  • problem-solving
  • leadership
  • teamworking
  • critical thinking
  • interpersonal skills
  • professionalism 

As a mental health nurse, you’ll also need to review treatment plans and make decisions about care. 

Mental health nurses usually work in a team with other health and social care professionals, including:

  • psychiatrists
  • GPs
  • psychologists
  • healthcare support workers
  • occupational therapists
  • social workers
  • art therapists
  • music therapists
  • drama therapists

As a mental health nurse in the NHS, you could work in:

  • mental health hospitals
  • GP practices
  • health centres
  • prisons
  • residential homes
  • a person’s own home

Registering with the NMC

When you become qualified, you must register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to practise as a mental health nurse. The NMC are the independent regulator for all registered nurses and midwives in the UK.

This video from the NMC explains what makes you a registered professional.

Learning and development

Once registered as a mental health nurse, there are ongoing requirements for education and skills development. You’ll have opportunities to further develop in your career. 

In your first year as a newly qualified nurse, you’ll get extra support and guidance through the Flying Start NHS programme.

Career progression

In the NHS, you may choose to be a staff nurse throughout your nursing career, keeping up to date through continuing professional development. Taking extra courses and workplace learning could lead to progression through the career pathway to senior, advanced, or consultant level. 

When you have qualified and gained experience as a registered mental health nurse, there are lots of specialisms to choose from, including: 

  • substance misuse
  • early intervention
  • dementia care
  • children and young people's mental health
  • community mental health
  • forensic mental health
  • clinical research  


Revalidation is a process that all nurses need to follow to maintain their registration with the NMC every 3 years.

It is an ongoing process throughout your career as a nurse and aims to:

  • promote good practice
  • maintain and strengthen public confidence in the profession

Find out more about revalidation on the NMC website.

Professional bodies

When you become a qualified mental health nurse, you must register with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to work in the NHS. You can also join the Royal College of Nursing.

Navigate page

Explore careers

Explore careers

Discover the skills and qualifications you’ll need for each role and what the work will be like.

Explore careers

Help with recruitment

We'll guide you through the recruitment process, from applying online to interview preparation.

Help with recruitment