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How to ace your mental health nursing interview

doctors shaking hands at desk in clinic

Mental health nurses face challenging and unpredictable behaviour and to succeed in the role takes a special kind of commitment. To impress at interview you need to convince a potential employer that you have the right personal qualities and attitude, as well the necessary skills and experience.

Ian Hulatt, professional lead for mental health at the Royal College of Nursing, and RCN careers advisor Cathy Taylor reveal five common interview questions and how best to answer them.

How would you improve the quality of care provided?

Employers asking this question are looking for you to demonstrate two things: that you have a good awareness and high standards of compassionate care, and that you will show initiative in the role.

‘Discuss the areas of mental health nursing where you feel improvements could be made and give an indication of how you would address these in practice,’ advises Ian.

‘Talk about a time when you used your initiative to improve patient care, perhaps suggesting a change to procedure, or how reflecting on a particular patient situation led to you changing your approach and the resulting positive outcome.’

How would you deal with a distressed/aggressive patient?

This question may be scenario-based, “what would you do if a patient did x” or, “tell me about a time when…” In either case, the interviewer is looking for the same thing. If you have researched the facility/unit, you will know what patients typically present with and the appropriate procedures used.

‘An employer wants to feel confident that you will be able to quickly assess and de-escalate a situation,’ says Cathy. ‘As well as previous experience, they want to see that you have a common sense approach and will treat patients with care without putting yourself, your colleagues or anyone else at risk.’

Talk about how you would assess things and the possible actions you might take, making reference to local policies and guidelines, and who you will communicate with regarding the situation. You should also mention record keeping in patient notes/critical incident forms if relevant, and discuss ways of learning from the situation, advises Cathy.

How does the Mental Health Act affect you and your patients?

An employer wants to see that you have a good knowledge of The Mental Health Act and are aware of how it underpins your daily practice as a mental health nurse. If you have researched the unit/facility you are applying to, you should be aware of which sections are most relevant to the position.

‘Re-read the main sections of the act and make sure you are familiar with key features, such as: who can use a particular section, who it can be used on, how long it lasts, and how it’s lifted or how the patient or close relative can appeal it, as well as what paperwork needs to be done,’ says Ian.

‘You may be asked other questions based on The Mental Capacity Act, Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards and the Care Programme Approach, so make sure you are familiar with each and how it impacts on your patients and patient care.’

What personal qualities do you have that make you suitable for the role?

This is your opportunity to describe in detail why you think you would be a good person for the role.

‘Give this careful consideration before the interview and offer a balanced answer. It’s okay to celebrate your good and positive aspects and make sure that you demonstrate them in the interview!’ says Ian.

‘It’s also okay to demonstrate self-awareness by describing areas that you are currently working on to enhance your practice. For instance, you might say: “When I engage with older people I am aware that they have a wealth of experience and knowledge and I have been trying to explore this more in my interactions with them.”’

What are the biggest risks of mental health nursing in your opinion?

This question is designed to assess your understanding of the complexities of the job and an awareness of the risks (both physical and psychological) posed to your patients and yourself as a nurse.

‘Your answer should demonstrate that you are aware of the realities of the environments that you may be required to work in and how you intend to care for yourself in a demanding field of work,’ says Ian.

‘Employers will also expect you to discuss the importance of following safety procedures and your awareness of the support systems available to you as a nurse, such as counselling.’

Why do you want the job?

Sometimes, seemingly straightforward questions are the most difficult to answer. Spend time thinking about why this particular job is right for you – and why are right for the job. Your answer should be succinct, well informed, and impassioned.

‘This is your opportunity to express your commitment to mental health nursing, your understanding of what the position involves, and what makes you right for the job,’ says Cathy.

‘Be honest about your reasons for wanting the job (if the locality/hours appeal) and be enthusiastic about what you can bring to the position and how you can help make a difference.’


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