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What Can Nurses Do About the Mental Health Crisis?

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Nurses are recognized for the high levels of trust that they build with patients. In fact, nurses have been ranked the most trusted professionals for the past 17 years. As such, nurses play an essential role in addressing the nation’s mental health crisis.

Some RNs specialize in psychiatric care. But every RN must be prepared to recognize and address their patients’ diverse needs. Earning a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) is an important step in achieving improved outcomes, such as with mental health.

For example, the RN to BSN program at the University of Louisiana Monroe (ULM) includes coursework that emphasizes the assessment of health status across the lifespan. Taking mental health into consideration can help patients access the treatment they may need.

What Is the Mental Health Crisis?

Mental illness can range in severity, from mild to disabling. According to the World Health Organization, mental illnesses, such as depression, are among the top 10 causes of disability.

As debilitating as mental illness can be, a majority of people do not receive mental health services. For example, over 60 percent of youth with clinical depression do not receive treatment.

Findings from a 2017 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) highlight the severity of the mental health crisis:

  • Over 46 million adults in the U.S. live with mental illness. This is nearly one in five.
  • Of young adults (aged 18-25), 25.8 percent live with mental illness. This is almost double the number for 50 and older (13.8 percent).
  • Young adults have the highest incidence (7.5 percent) of Serious Mental Illness (SMI). SMIs include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
  • Only 38.4 percent of young adults with mental illness receive treatment or counseling. The numbers improve slightly for adults aged 26-49 (43.3 percent) and 50 and older (44.2 percent).

A lack of treatment for mental illness can have dire consequences. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI):

  • Adults living with SMI have a shorter life expectancy — on average, a reduction of 25 years. For the most part, this is due to treatable medical conditions.
  • Students with mental health conditions have a much higher dropout rate (37 percent) than other disability groups.
  • A vast majority of individuals (90 percent) who die by suicide show signs of mental illness.

How Can Nurses Foster the Mind-Body Connection?

Patient-centered care is central to the art and science of nursing. Not surprisingly, nurses — the largest segment of providers — generally spend more time with patients than other healthcare professionals. Clearly, nurses have a leading role in improving quality of care for patients with mental health conditions.

Nurses are known for their ability to establish rapport with patients. They are also often the first to connect with a patient. This places them in a unique position to recognize mental health concerns. As trusted advocates, nurses can provide the compassion patients may need at a difficult time and help them access treatment.

RNs can promote better health outcomes for patients who struggle with mental illness and chronic disease, such as diabetes. More than 30 million Americans have diabetes. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), problems with one can worsen the other.

The good news is that improving one condition can also improve the other. RNs can help patients understand the “mind-body connection” to reduce the risk of complications.

How Can Triage Nurses Help?

Emergency departments are a “safety net” for patients with mental health conditions. But the triage process may mean long wait times, and symptoms can get worse. A shortage of psychiatric beds may also mean patients are “boarded” in emergency rooms.

A article describes the life-changing impact triage nurses can have for mental health patients in the emergency room. This begins with the triage process, where empathy and compassion are as important as clinical judgement.

Emergency department nurses can ensure that patients are treated with respect and dignity. For example, involving patients in decisions can increase feelings of control and encourage an active role in their care.

How Can Nurses Shape Mental Health Policy?

Patient advocacy is built into the Code of Ethics for Nurses. Patients trust nurses to advocate for them at the bedside. Nurses can also advocate at the policy level, such as with decisions that may impact treatment for those living with mental illness.

Being a policy advocate does not have to mean running for Congress. It can mean contacting a representative about a policy issue affecting patients with mental illness. Just think about it: There are over four million RNs in the U.S., so nurses can be a powerful voice in leading change.

Nurses are at the front lines of care, and they are known for putting patients first. Whatever the healthcare setting or life stage, nurses can advocate both to promote the mental health of their patients and to improve care at the policy level.

To be effective patient advocates in any nursing specialty, mental health included, nurses must have the ability to think critically and the research skills for implementing evidence-based care. Having these abilities equips them to make informed decisions, and employers view these advanced skills as essential to improving patient outcomes.

By earning a BSN, nurses can develop these in-demand skills to not only provide better care but also position themselves as qualified for the advanced roles that tend to pay more.

Moreover, nurses who want to help alleviate the mental health crisis choose to further their education at the master’s or doctoral level. With a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), for example, nurses can advance to leadership roles in psychiatric mental health (PMH), including as Advanced Practice Psychiatric Nurses (PMH-APRNs).

Considering that a BSN is mandatory for entry into master’s and doctoral nursing programs, nurses keen on making a difference in the mental health arena should give serious thought to earning a BSN.

Learn more about the University of Louisiana Monroe’s online RN to BSN program.


Gallup: Nurses Again Outpace Other Professions for Honesty, Ethics

World Health Organization: Developing Nursing Resources for Mental Health

Mental Health America: Mental Health in America – Access to Care Data

National Institute of Mental Health: Mental Illness

National Alliance on Mental Illness: Teens & Young Adults

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Division of Diabetes Translation at a Glance

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Diabetes & Mental Health

NCSBN: Active RN Licenses: A Profile of Nursing Licensure in the U.S.

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