Identity and education

One of the things I discussed with Swansea University’s Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP) students today was how the emergence of a system of community mental health care opened up important new sites for the advancement of professional jurisdictional claims. For more on this idea of jurisdiction (which comes from the sociology of work) check out these earlier posts and embedded links to full-text articles here, here, here and here. It implies that in a dynamic division of labour professions engage in a constant jostling to cement and advance their positions, against the claims of others. The appearance of the AMHP role, fulfilled not just by social workers (as was the case with the old ASW role) but also by nurses, occupational therapists and psychologists, shows how the relationships between professions and tasks can change over time.

It is additionally the case that occupational groups are not homogeneous, but are internally segmented. This means that within a single profession differentiated elements can find themselves battling it out to control work and its underpinning knowledge, or to determine what counts as a necessary preparation for new entrants. And nursing, it appears to me, has plenty of form when it comes to internal divisions and disputes of this type.

With all this in mind, two papers caught my eye before heading off to teach this morning. Both are authored by Professor Brenda Happell. In her editorial in the current issue of the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, titled Let the buyer beware! Loss of professional identity in mental health nursing, Brenda says (amongst other things):

Most of the time, I feel eternally grateful for my decision to pursue a career in mental health nursing […] At other times, I despair and wonder about the future of our profession, and the care of people experiencing mental health challenges.

I’ll quote some more, as the full text of the editorial is behind a subscription paywall. Writing about the Australian context in particular (this being a part of the world where nurses are trained as generalists rather than, as here in the UK, for a specific field of practice), Brenda adds:

Some of my concern can be traced back to the professional identity of mental health nursing. Identity is such an important part of being professional, and how we consider and present ourselves both individually and collectively.


Mental health nursing is becoming integrated into other content, in the absence of any evidence to suggest this is an effective means of education and plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest it isn’t. Nurses without any specialist qualifications,
and often without experience in mental health, are increasingly teaching the content, medical-surgical wards are being considered suitable places to gain clinical experience in mental health, and nurses who work in mental health for more than 5 minutes are referred to as mental health nurses, despite not having the appropriate qualifications.

That’s a dismal picture indeed. Through a ‘jurisdictions’ prism it might be thought of as a case of one segment within a highly differentiated profession claiming possession of sufficient knowledge to capture the work previously done by another, and to reframe what counts as adequate educational preparation.

Brenda and colleagues’ second paper has just appeared in early online form in Perspectives in Psychiatric Care. Majors in Mental Health Nursing: Issues of Sustainability and Commitment reports findings from an interview study involving representatives of Australian universities which had committed to (or actually implemented) mental health ‘majors’ within their comprehensive undergraduate nursing curricula, but which then discontinued them. Noting the lack of sustainability of embedded mental health nursing options within larger courses of generalist pre-registration education, Brenda and her team conclude:

[…] these experiences suggest that the current comprehensive nursing education programs are not well suited to promoting mental health nursing education as a positive future career destination. While such apparent attitudes prevail, the workforce problems in mental health nursing are likely to persist and indeed worsen.

A dismal conclusion again, linked once more in Brenda’s analysis to a shift away from a pre-qualification route to specialist mental health nursing practice.

Arguments for comprehensive, generalist, nurse education and thus for greater homogeneity in the workforce are frequently made here in the UK. When the Nursing and Midwifery Council opened a consultation on proposed new standards for pre-registration nursing in 2007 it specifically asked people to give a view on whether the branches (Mental Health, Adult, Children and Learning Disabilities) should remain. Mental Health Nurse Academics UK (drawing in part on Sarah Robinson and Peter Griffiths’ National Nursing Research Unit international comparison of approaches to specialist training at pre-registration level) submitted this in its 2008 response:

Experiences from other countries that have gone down the generalist pre-qualifying nursing education route show that this leads to a lack of skilled MHN workforce, difficulties in recruiting to post-registration MHN training and a reduction in the quality of care and service provision for those with MH problems […] In attempting to achieve some unitary, generalist view of nursing to fit with other countries, many of whom are envious of our branch specific pre-registration model, we run the very real and significant risk of simply repeating the errors of others for no gain.

We’ve had changes in formal interprofessional divisions of work (which takes me back to this morning’s AMHP students, notwithstanding that all in this class happened to be social workers). But we’ve hung on to branches (or ‘fields’, to use the current nomenclature) in UK nursing, and continue to prepare nurses to exclusively do mental health work from pre-registration level onwards. Six years on, Brenda Happell’s cautionary tales from Australia remind us of what might have been had decisions been made differently.


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