A mental health nurse in the general hospital – by Paul McNamara

Paul McNamara has extensive experience providing clinical and educative mental health support in general hospital and community clinical settings. He holds hospital-based, undergraduate and post-graduate qualifications, is Credentialed by the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses (ACMHN), and has been a Fellow of the ACMHN since 2007. Paul is a very active participant in health care social media, and is enthusiastic about nurses embracing “digital citizenship”. More info via his website http://meta4RN.com

There is an odd little sub-speciality of mental health services called “consultation liaison psychiatry”. This waffly, jargon-ridden mouthful of syllables is usually abbreviated to “CL”. What is CL? Easy – just think of it as “general hospital mental health”.

I’m a mental health nurse on a CL team. The only ward in the hospital I don’t visit is the mental health unit (the mental health unit already has heaps of mental health nurses – they don’t need me there). It’s the rest of the hospital I serve: the surgical wards, the medical wards and the maternity unit.

General hospital patients are more at risk of experiencing mental health problems than the general public – being sick is stressful. It works the other way around too: people who experience long-term mental health difficulties are more at risk of becoming physically unwell – being under lasting emotional stress can take a toll on the body.

Nurses, doctors, social workers and other allied health practitioners will phone CL when they have concerns about the mental health of a patient. Sometimes all that is required is a bit of information and clarification about medication or follow-up services available in the community – we do that over the phone. More often, we are asked to meet with the patient and determine what, if any, mental health matters can be sorted-out while they are in hospital.

The most common mental health problems experienced in the community are anxiety and depression – it’s the same in the general hospital – a lot of the people I meet with are experiencing either or both of these conditions. There are other mental health problems like eating disorders and deliberate self harm that sometimes require input from both the medical/surgical team and the mental health team concurrently. Helping-out with planning and providing support and care of these patients is a pretty big part of my job.

Sometimes it’s not the person in the pyjamas (the patient) who needs our support – sometimes it’s the communication, the systems and the clinical staff who benefit most from CL input. This can be in the form of structured education sessions or, more typically, in the form of supporting discussion, reflection and problem-solving on how best to meet the needs of the patient within the limited resources available in the hospital. In this aspect of the job, a CL nurse will try to help the clinicians involved step-back from the busyness and pressures of the hospital ward and take “a balcony view” of what is happening. By taking ourselves out of the chaos of a busy shift and calmly looking back at things with a bit of distance, sometimes we can see how we can “do business” in hospitals a little more constructively.

We also spend a lot of time “undiagnosing” (this is a “neologism” – a made-up word – I heard recently via Sydney psychiatrist Dr Anne Wand). The people we “undiagnose” the most are those who are experiencing grief. There can be a lot of grief in general hospitals, but we try to be careful not to confuse the emotions of grief (sadness, anger, temporary despair etc) with a psychiatric disorder. Grief emotions are often really uncomfortable but they are part of what makes us who we are. We don’t want to “psychiatricise” or “psychologise” the human condition. Grief is not something to be simply fixed; grief is a part of life – a difficult part of life – that is usually successfully navigated without psychiatric input. Support from loved ones and/or social workers and/or specific counselling services can help.

So, that’s an overview of what it is to be a mental health nurse in a general hospital. It’s a varied role where we spend nearly as much time with the general hospital nurses, midwives, allied health staff and doctors as we do with the hospital patients. The role involves direct clinical care, collaborating with colleagues and providing education. For more information on the specialty please visit my website or the “consultation liaison nurses special interest group” section of the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses website.

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