Nurse’s Guide to Caring for Patients With Mental Health Challenges
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Nursing care of patients with mental health challenges calls for understanding, empathy, and skill. Learn more about best practices in mental health nursing.
Proper care for mental health is a huge and often unmet need in the United States. Less than half of all adults with mental health challenges are receiving the care that they require.
The situation is even worse for children; only one in five with mental health conditions receives sufficient care. Access to mental healthcare is one of the biggest disparities in health, with limited access among rural and lower-income patients. Unfortunately, this often includes large numbers of populations of color.
Mental health nursing can be emotionally and financially rewarding, but it can also be emotionally draining. This guide offers tips for providing the best nursing care of patients with mental health challenges.
Health Disparities for Persons With Mental Health Challenges
- Nationally, 29.7% of patients with a cognitive disability were unable to see a mental health provider because of cost. The numbers vary by state. For instance, 18.5% of Rhode Islanders with cognitive disabilities reported being unable to afford care, while to 40.7% in Texas reported the same.
- African Americans were the least likely of any racial group to receive mental healthcare, with only 45% reporting they had access to treatment.
- African Americans are less likely to receive culturally competent care than white patients. Physicians are 33% more likely to engage in patient-centered communication with white patients than with African Americans.
- People who are biracial are more likely than any other group to report mental health conditions. Among biracial adults, 24.9% reported experiencing a mental health condition, compared to 22.7% of American Indian/Alaska Natives, 19% of whites, and 16.8% of African Americans.
- Among transgender adults, 48% reported considering suicide, compared to 4% of all adults.
Barriers to Care for Persons With Mental Health Challenges
There are several barriers to care for persons with mental health challenges. These can include:
- Insufficient numbers of healthcare providers and a lack of access, especially in rural and low-income communities
- Difficulty finding in-network providers for mental healthcare
- High cost of mental healthcare, especially for patients without insurance or with high deductibles or copays
- Patients who perceive a stigma about seeking mental healthcare, that is, patient or cultural perception that mental health problems are because of personal or moral weakness
- Cultural beliefs or misconceptions that depression or anxiety isn't real or that those who experience either are weak
- Lack of trust in the medical establishment and healthcare providers, especially among African Americans
- Lack of public education that addresses mental health conditions and treatment that can help
- Difficulties accessing culturally competent care or care in one's own language
Many of these barriers are vicious cycles, as people without access to care are more likely to experience financial difficulties, which worsens their access to care.
Similarly, those who believe in stigmas about mental health are less likely to seek education about mental health conditions.
Best Practices for Caring for Patients With Mental Health Challenges
Nurses can address many of these barriers by educating themselves, their communities, and patients. They can also engage in advocacy for mental healthcare.
Actively improve your cultural competence.
You can improve your nursing cultural competence in the nursing care of patients with mental health challenges through formal education, mentoring and coaching, and independent reading and study. Access resources on culturally competent nursing through your hospital or public library, through online or in-person courses, and at conferences and meetings.
Continue professional education.
As a nurse, you must be a lifelong learner to ensure your patients receive the best care. Most states require continuing education for nurses to maintain your nursing license, ensuring that you stay up to date with nursing best practices and understand how to apply the latest developments in nursing care.
Educate your patients about mental health.
Many patients have misconceptions about mental health, such as depression is just feeling down or cognitive decline is a normal part of aging. You can help by educating your patients about mental health and helping them find appropriate care.
Consider becoming a mental health nurse.
Becoming a mental health nurse can be rewarding. Mental health nurse careers are in demand and there are many excellent programs for both registered nurses and psychiatric nurse practitioners (NPs) who specialize in nursing care of patients with mental health challenges.
If you have outstanding nursing loans, working in underserved areas may make you eligible for student loan forgiveness for nursing.
Advocate for mental health funding and access.
Nurses and nursing associations have a powerful voice in healthcare and policy, and you can improve access to care at the macro level. Write letters to the editor, communicate with your local and national legislators, and talk with your organization's leadership about improving funding and access.
Take care of your own mental health.
Nursing is stressful and providing nursing care of patients with mental health challenges can be especially demanding. Take care of your own mental health so that you can take care of others.
Helpful Mental Health Resources for Nurses
- LGBTQ+ communities and mental health. (2022).
- Mental health disparities: diverse populations.(2021).
- Panchal N, et al. (2022). How does use of mental health care vary by demographics and health insurance coverage
- The state of mental health in America. (2022).
Page last reviewed May 13, 2022
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