Nurse’s Guide to Caring for Patients With Mental Health Challenges

NurseJournal Staff
Updated March 28, 2024
Reviewed by
Our Integrity Network is committed to delivering content that is objective and actionable. To that end, we have built a network of industry professionals across higher education to review our content and ensure we are providing the most helpful information to our readers.

Drawing on their firsthand industry expertise, our Integrity Network members serve as an additional step in our editing process, helping us confirm our content is accurate and up to date. These contributors:

  • Suggest changes to inaccurate or misleading information.
  • Provide specific, corrective feedback.
  • Identify critical information that writers may have missed.

Integrity Network members typically work full time in their industry profession and review content for as a side project. All Integrity Network members are paid members of the Red Ventures Education Integrity Network.

Explore our full list of Integrity Network members.

Nursing care of patients with mental health challenges calls for understanding, empathy, and skill. Learn more about best practices in mental health nursing.
mini logo

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Featured ImageCredit: Getty Images

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

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.

  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    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.

  3. 3

    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.
  4. 4

    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.

  5. 5

    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.

  6. 6

    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

  • Mental Health America

    Mental Health America promotes mental health awareness and access to care through advocacy, research, and education. You can access information on mental health conditions, self-screening tools, and current advocacy efforts you can participate in. It also holds an annual conference and offers online education.
  • Support for Public Health Workers and Health Professionals

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shares information on mental wellness and stress management for health care providers, including tips on mental wellness, education on compassion fatigue and burnout, and resources on mental health in the workplace.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness

    NAMI provides support, education, and a national hotline, as well as referrals to pro bono care for frontline healthcare providers. You can read personal stories, find support groups for both people with mental health conditions and their families or support circles, download infographics to share, and view videos and public service announcements about mental health.
  • American Psychiatric Nurses Association

    The APNA offers an online community, continuing professional education, an annual conference, and publications for psychiatric nurses. It engages in advocacy for mental healthcare and for psychiatric nurses. Membership, which includes national and local chapter membership, is open to nurses at all levels.
  • National Association of Psychiatry Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

    The NAPMHNP is open to both current NPs and students. Membership benefits include continuing education and discounts on education from selected schools, discounts on its annual conference, and scholarship and grant opportunities. It advocates for access to care and for psychiatric NPs.
  • Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation

    The Healthy Nurse, Healthy Nation project is part of the American Nurses Foundation. It provides support and education for nurses to improve their health, including support for mental health and well-being, such as relaxation and mindfulness techniques.


Page last reviewed May 13, 2022

Are you ready to earn your online nursing degree?

Whether you’re looking to get your pre-licensure degree or taking the next step in your career, the education you need could be more affordable than you think. Find the right nursing program for you.