Mental health issues are incredibly common, and despite immense progress in 20th century psychological and neuropsychiatric research, these enigmatic disorders are still not fully understood. In the United States in 2014, 8.9% of people had been diagnosed during the past year with a serious mental health problem. An astounding 27.1% were diagnosed with any mental illness, regardless of severity. This includes substance abuse disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, disorders on the schizophrenia spectrum, and any other condition that could be classified as psychiatric rather than purely organic.
The prevalence of mental illness makes psychiatric care, including psych nursing, an incredibly important medical field. As the complex interaction of neurochemical abnormalities, psychosocial factors, and underlying genetics come together, psychiatrists and psych nurses are tasked with an enormous undertaking: healing the mind.
But what special tools does a psych nurse need in their arsenal? What distinguishes this field of nursing from others that deal primarily with physical health issues? Here are some of the things that set psych nurses apart.
The Role of the Psych Nurse: From 19th Century Asylums to Modern Mental Health Facilities
Although concerns with mental health date back to at least the time of Cicero, psychiatry as a medical profession was a relatively recent development. In 1913, Johns Hopkins University was the first school for nurses to offer curricula in mental health nursing. 1920 saw the publication of the first psychiatric nursing textbook, “Nursing Mental Diseases” by Harriet Bailey.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the inpatient population in mental health asylums had increased dramatically, a trend which continued until the mid-20th century brought new pharmaceutical research that revolutionized mental health treatment. At its peak in the 1950s, Kings Park Psychiatric Center in Long Island had over 33,000 patients.
Today, there are fewer inpatients than during the early to mid 20th century. As new medications have been developed, patients who would have been committed back then can often respond to pharmaceutical treatments like neuroleptics, giving them a better quality of life and a newfound ability to live normally. Psych nurses still play a vital role in both inpatient and outpatient care.
Psychiatric nurses play a vital role in patient care for people suffering from mental illnesses. Part of their job is giving comprehensive global assessments that help gauge mental status. They also administer medication, and nurse practitioners can even prescribe it. They also help patients through psychosocial interventions that address the non-biomedical aspects of mental illness. This challenging occupation requires a thorough understanding of both medical and social-scientific aspects of mental illness.
A Thorough Understanding of Mental Illness
One of the most important assets that psych nurses can have is a thorough understanding of mental illness, its etiology, and its treatments. Psych nurses interact with patients who have a broad range of conditions, some of whom can function more normally than others. Interacting with severely mentally ill patients is incredibly challenging. It requires patience, understanding, and a substantial knowledge base.
Psychiatric nurses are educated in psychology, psychiatry, and neurology. They have a deep understanding of both neurological and neuropharmaceutical mechanisms, and the psychosocial aspects and outward symptoms of psychiatric disease. Nurse practitioners who work in psychiatry facilities are also able to prescribe medication, necessitating a strong understanding of the pharmacology of SSRIs, second generation antipsychotics, and other commonly prescribed medications.
Compassion: Taking a Humanistic Approach
Psychiatric nurses develop a unique therapeutic relationship with their patients, which can be instrumental in their healing process. To do this, psych nurses need an enormous degree of compassion. It’s important to be able to understand and sympathize what someone is going through, even if it’s incredibly alien to your own everyday life. From depressed patients who want to end their lives, to people with psychotic disorders who are experiencing strange and unrealistic delusions, psych nurses interact with some of the most vulnerable and lost people imaginable. To do this, psych nurses need to approach these patients with compassion. This is much easier said than done, especially since distressed patients can become hostile and combative.
Resilience: Fortitude in an Emotionally Demanding Occupation
Another tool psych nurses need is emotional resilience. Working with psychiatric patients can be mentally and emotionally taxing. These patients are often suffering immensely, and many psych nurses have had a close therapeutic relationship with a patient who eventually ended their life. These are difficult experiences, and psych nurses face them on a daily basis. A certain degree of emotional strength is needed to cope with the demands of psych nursing as an occupation.
Appreciating The Psych Nurses Among Us
Psych nursing is an often underappreciated branch of nursing, but these professionals play an important role in patient care for people suffering from mental illnesses. These compassionate, caring, and highly educated mental health workers routinely make a huge difference in their patients’ lives.