As A Mental Health Nurse, This Is What I Want People To Know

by Kira Gilbertson
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Mental healthcare is a topic that is widely talked about but poorly understood. I, by no means, claim to have all the answers, but as a mental health nurse I do have some insight.

We do not become mental health nurses by accident.

No one just falls into mental health nursing. Pursuing a career in this particular field takes a significant amount of effort, patience, and a thick skin. Most RNs who choose to work in mental health do so because they have a very personal experience related to mental illness and are passionate about helping others navigate the treatment process.

I work with many amazing people who are open about their struggles with anxiety, depression, and a wide range of other disorders. Many have been caretakers for family members who have severe disorders and understand the pressures felt by both the individual and the caretakers.

Patients often confide in me that they fear being seen as “crazy.” Let’s be completely transparent here, we are all a little “crazy.” Talk to us, ask questions; we are your resource to utilize.

1. Be honest.

The stigma of mental illness causes many patients to shy away from providing the healthcare team with the full picture of what they are experiencing. Not providing information only stunts the progression of your treatment.

We are not here to judge. We are here to assist you in discovering what the root issues are and how to address them. Please do not shy away from telling your mental health nurse about any symptom you are experiencing whether it is suicidal thoughts, self harm, anxiety, depression, or more unusual symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, or mania.

As mental health nurses, we have seen it all. Nothing you could say would surprise any of us at this point. I encourage my patients to have “verbal diarrhea.” Just relax and let it all out. (Sorry about the poop joke… it’s the crutch of nurse humor. I’m very popular with elementary-aged boys.)

2. We don’t think pharmaceuticals are the sole source of treatment.

Psychiatric medications have their place. However, medication is not the the total answer.

Participating in individual and family therapy and lifestyle changes are strongly encouraged. Building a strong support system and coping skills is vital to successful management of mental illness.

We have seen many patients struggle with controlling symptoms of mental illness. The idea that “there’s a pill for that” can be dangerous. Medications can be part of the equation, but they are not the full solution.

3. We know the system is broken.

Imagine trying to keep the walls of a building from collapsing, put out various fires, defuse a few bombs, and conduct multiple crisis negotiations while trying to provide for the needs of everyone in the building. That is mental health nursing.

We have all personally cared for individuals who the system has failed. Our hearts ache when a patient’s care suffers due to a lack of psychiatric healthcare coverage, lack of available resources, or budget cuts.

There are so many obstacles to helping individuals and families experiencing a mental health crisis. The red tape is beyond frustrating, for everyone. Mental health nurses see firsthand the failures of the current mental healthcare system. Political agendas aside, we are trying to be agents of change and advocates for those with mental illness.

As mental health nurses, we want to help. We can be your first helpline towards understanding what is happening, what to expect, and various treatment options.We may not have all the answers, but we are working on that.