Nurses are the backbone of the healthcare system, providing a wide range of essential services to patients and communities. In line with addressing diverse medical issues, the nursing profession has developed a symbiotic connection with different healthcare aspects, one being mental health support.

The primary role of nurses incorporates physical care and medical procedures; however, we would be wrong to consider these responsibilities within the boundary of the physical body. Today, nurses wield a remarkable influence on the mental well-being of their patients due to several skills that serve as integral components of mental health support.

In this exploration, we delve into the core of this connection, uncovering nurses’ pivotal role in improving physical health and the delicate landscape of the human mind.

The holistic nurse

Nursing has undergone several changes and transformations over the centuries. Its emergence as a modern profession can be attributed to the efforts of pioneers like Florence Nightingale, who advocated for higher educational standards, training, better working conditions, and recognition of nurses. The introduction of evidence-based practice was also significant in improving the scope and role of nurses in healthcare.

Today, nursing has developed to be a dynamic and diverse profession that faces several changes and opportunities in a rapidly changing world. Nurses constantly adapt to new technologies, innovations, and demands in healthcare, satisfying their commitment to improving people’s health across different life spans and in various settings and situations.

However, to completely satisfy this commitment, it becomes imperative for nursing responsibilities to transcend mere physical care. This need is due to the intricate interplay between mental health and physical well-being, where each significantly influences the other. The link between the body and mind has been largely publicized in different research papers, often portraying them as one entity.

If these claims indicate reality, it is no surprise that mental illnesses can significantly affect the physical body. This link is most notable in longevity, as individuals with mental health challenges often experience shorter lifespans than those without such conditions. According to research by the Mental Health Foundation, schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder, is associated with a tripled risk of dying from respiratory disease and a doubled risk of death from heart disease.

To this point, integrating mental health considerations into nurses’ patient care strategies is paramount. Since nurses often act as patients’ primary point of contact, they possess a unique position to observe and address mental health concerns. Furthermore, the nursing profession necessitates skills like empathy and communication, which are instrumental in developing patients’ trust and encouraging them to open up about mental health struggles.

At a time when mental health is being widely acknowledged, nurses are well-positioned to deliver a holistic approach to patient mental care. By incorporating mental health support into their responsibilities, nurses elevate the standard of care and fulfill their commitment to fostering the overall well-being of their patients.

Roles of nurses regarding mental health support

At this point, we recognize the importance of nurses in enhancing patient outcomes and contributing to a holistic healing process regarding mental health. But how do these professionals integrate mental health considerations into their patient care strategies? We answer this question by highlighting the unique roles of nurses regarding mental health support.

Clinical expertise

Beyond their primary roles in physical care, nurses can identify and assess mental health concerns. The routine assessment of a patient’s mental status by registered nurses typically includes evaluating their level of consciousness, overall appearance, general behavior, mood, speech, and cognitive performance.

Assessments can be done using various information sources, such as clinical interviews, observations, physical examinations, lab tests, or collateral information from family or friends. In some cases, nurses could opt for a brief screening process to identify people needing further assessment. For this process, nurses employ standardized questionnaires like the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-9) for depression screening or other checklists that measure the presence and severity of common mental health symptoms.

The third clinical expertise is a mental state examination. This tool enables nurses to describe the current mental state of a patient using standardized terminology. While it represents different expertise, mental state examination corresponds to the domains of assessments and screenings.

That said, nurses face various challenges and barriers in identifying and assessing mental health concerns in patients. Lack of training is a significant barrier, with most professionals still having insufficient knowledge or skills to recognize signs of distress in mental health patients. 

In most scenarios, nurses develop clinical expertise for mental health support through advanced nursing degrees. The online MSN FNP program at the University of Indianapolis allows you to achieve your degree in as little as eight semesters. The courses are part-time, allowing working nurses to study around their shifts. These comprehensive programs qualify nurses to practice autonomously and conduct comprehensive health assessments of patients throughout their lifespans.

Therapeutic communication

To a large extent, patients’ participation or non-participation in their care process is influenced by the quality of nurse-patient interaction and communication. Due to nurses’ roles in delivering effective, safe, patient-centered care, excellent communication skills are required.

Regarding mental health support, effective communication helps to create a sense of trust, making patients more likely to confide in nurses about their concerns, symptoms, and fears. In building trust with patients, nurses employ two primary techniques.

The first is empathetic listening, the ability to listen attentively and understand a patient’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences. This technique involves showing interest, compassion, and respect for patients and their circumstances. Nurses achieve this by engaging, using open-ended questions, and frequently validating the patient’s emotions and experiences.

The second technique for therapeutic communication is through open dialogue. For this process, nurses engage patients in a respectful and honest conversation where both parties share their perspectives, concerns, and expectations.

Healthcare communication competency offers a primary means for establishing trust and a collaborative relationship between patients and families, particularly considering the stigma associated with mental health. Therapeutic communication influences the quality of decisions made and the level of patient motivation to open up and follow treatment plans for the desired outcomes.

Interdisciplinary collaboration for holistic care

We all acknowledge the presence and impact of mental health in society. Yet, inadequate access to mental healthcare remains a significant and persistent issue in many parts of the world. Several factors contribute to barriers to quality mental healthcare, from stigma and discrimination to a shortage of mental health professionals, geographical disparities, lack of public awareness, and the emergency care gap.

Addressing these barriers requires long-term strategies incorporating constructive legislation and extensive evidence-based practices. However, one change that must occur now is breaking down the silos where all professionals in the mental health system can collaborate.

Professionals in the mental health field need to work more collaboratively with one another to provide holistic care for mental health patients and their families. Interdisciplinary collaboration should span various cognitive healthcare processes, including evaluation, diagnosis, consultation, and personalized healthcare delivery.

Opening effective communication channels between nurses and mental health professionals would also foster the early detection of mental health concerns, resulting in more proactive and preventive care. As mental health continues to be at the forefront, collaborative efforts remain an effective strategy to develop comprehensive care plans that address physical and mental needs.

Beyond the hospital walls: Community and preventive mental health

The responsibilities of nurses within healthcare go well beyond the boundaries of hospital walls, reaching into the heart of communities and embracing a holistic approach to well-being. This perspective equally applies to mental health support, where nurses advocate for improved mental healthcare and assume their crucial role in patient education and empowerment. Through clear and empathetic communication, nurses bridge the gap between complex medical information and patients’ understanding, ensuring that patients are well-informed partners in their healthcare journeys.

Nursing professionals work to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness by educating others on the reality of mental health and creating a supportive environment for those struggling with the condition. Nurses also advocate for policies that address social determinants that impact health outcomes and promote mental health awareness in every part of society.

The responsibilities of nurses beyond a medical setting are not limited to advocacy. They also extend care to preventive mental health initiatives by engaging in various strategies and activities that promote mental wellness and prevent the onset of mental health challenges. These strategies could include community outreach and education, workshops, school programs, screening, early intervention, wellness initiatives, crisis management, interdepartmental collaboration, and mental health support, among many other options.

Nurses contribute significantly to preventive mental health initiatives through diverse roles and interventions, empowering individuals to take proactive steps toward mental well-being and fostering healthier communities.

Preparing nurses for mental health support: Training and education

Earlier, we mentioned a lack of training as a significant barrier to mental health support by nurses. However, as the understanding of the intricate connection between physical and mental well-being deepens, the demand for skilled and compassionate nurses capable of navigating both realms has become increasingly apparent. Concurrently, training and education elements have also improved.

The nursing curricula have adapted to include mental health components in several ways. First, the curricula develop collaborative guidelines for undergraduate education in psychiatric mental health nursing by professional associations like the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (ISPN) and the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.

Nursing training curricula also integrate advanced courses on topics regarding mental disorders, psychopharmacology, clinical modalities, and evidence-based practice for psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners. Finally, educational opportunities improve nursing students’ mental health literacy and cultural competence by incorporating more mental health content, simulations, and clinical experiences.

Continuing education in nursing

Continuous education in nursing represents exposure to nursing programs beyond those necessary for essential practice. Regarding mental health support, it allows nurses to stay updated on best practices, build upon their education and expertise, and develop professionally.

Continuing education in nursing benefits the healthcare industry and is an essential element of a nursing career for several reasons:

Staying updated on current trends: Every aspect of the healthcare industry is constantly evolving, developing, and improving. Therefore, professionals can only stay updated with the latest trends, in this case regarding mental health, by continuing their nursing education.

Maintaining nursing credentials: Another top reason to continue nursing education is to maintain a nursing license and certifications. These documents are relevant in practicing as a nurse in a clinical setting.

Strengthening existing skills: Continuing education provides an opportunity to review mental healthcare competency and improve the ability to support patients. Professionals can also learn new clinical skills and better nursing practices to enhance professional competence.

Adapting to technological advances: Like other healthcare systems, mental health support is subject to technological advances that help streamline several processes. Continuing education allows nurses to learn about these changes and advances necessary to provide patients with the best care.

Continuing professional development is central to nurses’ professional commitment and is vital for keeping their skills and knowledge up to date.

The symbiotic connection between nursing and mental health support is undeniable, as nurses’ responsibilities evolve continuously to provide holistic care that addresses physical and mental needs. Through their clinical expertise, therapeutic communication, and extensive interdisciplinary collaboration, nurses remain at the forefront of promoting mental well-being within the healthcare landscape. By recognizing this connection, we can pave the way for a healthier and more integrated approach to mental care. 

By Rehan

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