University of Canberra: Attracting and retaining mental health nurses must start with early exposure to sector pathways, says UC Professor

A Professorial Lecture at the University of Canberra this week will address the issue of recruiting and retaining mental health nurses, with Professor Michael Roche speaking on the important contributions they make to the health sector.

The public lecture will be hosted by the Faculty of Health, as part of the University’s Research Week.

Professor Roche is the Clinical Chair of Mental Health Nursing at the University of Canberra and ACT Health.

“I want the audience to get a picture of how mental health nursing has transformed and grown, so that they can see how nursing work is benefiting people with lived experience of mental health challenges, to see the rewards of working in the space, to appreciate the support available to them, and to understand how they can be part of it,” he said.

Professor Roche worked for many years in clinical environments across both in-patient and community mental health, and observed the sector undergoing major changes from the 1980s onwards.

During this time, Australia moved away from institutional to mainstreamed and community-oriented mental healthcare. This coincided with the change from direct entry mental health nursing to comprehensive undergraduate nursing education in colleges and universities.

“These changes were essential but also created an enormous amount of disruption, with the focus of nursing care moving to an unfamiliar and much more dynamic environment, and a lag in developing accessible postgraduate mental health nursing to replace the previous system,” Professor Roche said.

One of the impacts of these changes was a perceived loss of identity for nurses working in mental health, and a perception that the mental health sector was not a great place to work – a perception that is still held by some.

“We need to address that by advocating for mental health nursing. I’ve seen my colleagues take opportunities to advance practice, to open doors to people with lived experience of mental health issues, to lead comprehensive clinical interventions, to reshape nursing education, and to sustain other nurses. We need to show how that is happening and make it public,” Professor Roche said.

He is advocating for more engagement with students considering a career in mental health nursing.

“That can happen in the very early stages of the undergraduate space, or even at school, for that matter,” Professor Roche said.

The lecture will also examine ways to sustain and retain nursing staff in the mental health sector.

“Building resilience is a key aspect, so that we have people who are in a really positive mental state as health professionals, putting them in the best place to support other people,” Professor Roche said.

“There remain challenges to address in mental health nursing, as in every space, but we cannot constrain ourselves by focusing only on the barriers. We have the opportunity to extend the remarkable work being undertaken in practice, education and research.”

“It takes courage to overcome our fear of change and the inertia of organisations – but the time to do so is now.”