Learning disability and mental health nursing: new plans for change

I recently met an amazing team at the St Aubyn Centre in Colchester. This is a specialist health service that cares for young people with learning disabilities or mental health issues. It was great to meet them and chat through some of the changes in practices they have made in their response to COVID.

The mental health and learning disability needs of our population are so complex and diverse that it takes a unique set of skills and expertise to be a nurse in these areas. In addition to being highly skilled clinicians, these nurses must be adept in their approach, with a high level of empathy, intelligence and sensitivity to tune in with people who need very particular, personalised care. In my visits to services across England, I have seen many outstanding examples of how this type of expertise aids a person’s recovery.

Yet despite the brilliance of colleagues working in these specialist fields, we know we have much more to do. For people with learning disabilities and autistic people, we must reduce premature deaths, whilst ensuring we equip all staff with a greater awareness of people’s needs.

For mental health, we must strive to ensure parity of esteem between physical and mental health needs, dispelling many of the long-standing myths and stigma associated with mental health which can contribute to those with a mental illness dying 20 years earlier than the general population.

When I began as Chief Nursing Officer for England, I made a very personal commitment to ensure the voice of mental health nurses and learning disability nurses are meaningfully represented, and that the necessary investment in these vital branches of nursing is secured.

With this priority in mind, we have developed a new ‘All England plan’ for learning disability nursing. Another one for mental health nursing is underway, for launch later this year. Each plan sets out a range of ambitions to attract, retain, develop and celebrate people in these roles, and the value and contribution of each respective branch.

NHS England and Improvement has recently published a variety of information to support the delivery of the new NHS People Plan, and the new ‘All England plans’ are intrinsically aligned to this, with each plan setting out a range of exacting ambitions.

The advent of these plans is wholeheartedly supported by our partners, and most importantly, they are held to account via an advisory board of people with lived experience.

Across all parts of the system, COVID-19 has highlighted the unrelenting contribution of nurses everywhere. For learning disability nurses and mental health nurses, their unfaltering commitment to the people they care for is beyond question. They continued to provide this essential care and support throughout the lockdown period transforming services in many cases overnight to ensure those with a learning disability, autism and or a mental health condition continued to receive the care they needed. The new, dedicated ‘All England plans’, send an extremely powerful message; and that is, there has never been a better time to be, or to become a learning disability nurse or a mental health nurse.

Ruth May

Ruth enjoyed national appointments with NHS Improvement and Monitor, as well as regional and trust leadership roles, before becoming the Chief Nursing Officer (CNO) for England in January 2019.

In June 2022, as part of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Honours, Ruth was awarded a DBE for her services to nursing, midwifery and the NHS since she started her nurse training in 1985. Upon receiving her Damehood, Ruth recognised the expertise of nursing and midwifery colleagues in caring for people at every stage of their lives and the vital role that the professions and care staff played during the pandemic. Ruth has led the nursing, midwifery and care professions’ response to COVID-19 in England and led collaborative work with UK CNO colleagues, the NMC and trade unions to ensure agreement and consistent messaging on key issues.

She is passionate about nurturing the next generation of NHS nursing and midwifery leaders and encouraging professional development opportunities. This includes advocating for improved mental health awareness, championing volunteer activity to support the frontline workforce, and she is a vocal supporter of the WRES agenda and increased diversity across the NHS.

Proud mum to her wonderful daughter, Ruth is a great believer in a healthy professional and home life balance for all.

Find Ruth on Twitter @CNOEngland / #teamCNO.