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How Does Mental Health Nursing Differ from General Nursing?

If you’re aspiring to become a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (or PMHNP, for short), you may well be wondering, how does mental health nursing differ from general nursing?

Unlike a generally trained registered nurse (or RN), a PMHNP’s role shares many similarities with that of a licensed psychiatrist. In that sense, a nurse who is qualified to deliver psychiatric care has significantly different duties and responsibilities from those of a general RN.

If you’re interested in taking the leap from general nursing to mental health nursing, stay with us as we guide you through the differences between the two.

General Nursing: What are the Main Duties and Responsibilities of a Registered Nurse (RN)?

The job description of a registered nurse incorporates several different duties, tasks, and responsibilities. Some of these requirements of a licensed RN include:

  • Monitoring and assessing patient symptoms to ascertain their condition and needs
  • Observing and communicating patient symptoms and needs to doctors and physicians
  • Administering medications in line with physician-guided patient treatment care plans
  • Monitoring and assessing patient conditions during and throughout treatment
  • Performing routine procedures such as taking blood pressure measurements and filling out patient charts 
  • Assisting the surgical team in the theatre room when required
  • Maintaining the hygiene and safety of treatment facilities in line with medical standards

As demonstrated in the duties and tasks listed above, a registered nurse’s role is quite generalized.

This is especially true when it is compared with the considerably more specialized role of a mental health nurse, whose focus is predominantly on delivering psychiatric care.

Delivering Psychiatric Care: The Specialized Role of a Mental Health Nurse

Just like a psychiatrist, a mental health nurse is qualified to diagnose and treat patients presenting with symptoms of mental illness. 

A large part of this involves delivering psychiatric care to patients who present with a variety of mental health issues. This includes treating some of the most common mental disorders, such as:

Mood Disorders 

Anxiety and Depression 

Anxiety and depression are some of the most commonly experienced mood disorders that exist. In the US, nearly 4 in 10 adults reported symptoms of these disorders, as recently as in February 2021. 

Bipolar Disorder

While somewhat less common, Bipolar Disorder also affects a larger number of individuals than we might think. As many as 4.4% of American adults, to be precise. Symptoms of the illness that differentiate it from others, and lead to its diagnosis, include dramatic mood swings and periods of hypermania coupled, on the flip side, with bouts of extreme depression. 

Personality Disorders

Many of us would be unaware that there are several different types of personality disorders. Perhaps most surprisingly, experts have identified as many as 10 different types, including:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Avoidant behavior disorders
  • Paranoid/schizoid disorders
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD)

Psychotic Disorders

One of the most well-known psychotic disorders is Schizophrenia. Most frequently, sufferers of this disorder will commonly experience delusion or hallucination. To treat this illness, patients are usually heavily medicated. Their quality of life is also presumed to be considerably low. 

To put this into perspective, consider what life would be like if your perception of reality was constantly jeopardized by your illness. An example of this altered reality can be seen in the movie Memento, which first aired in the year 2000.

While admittedly, the mental disorder in question was anterograde amnesia, it still demonstrates the challenges of navigating reality when your consciousness cannot be trusted. 

As well as the treatment and care a mental health nurse will deliver to psychiatric patients when diagnosed with mental illnesses and disorders, they will also assist patients suffering from symptoms of substance abuse and addiction. This work can be confronting and can take an emotional toll on even the strongest mental healthcare worker. 

For this reason, a psychiatric nurse must be especially resilient. Just like a psychiatrist, a nurse who specializes in mental healthcare treatment must take measures to ensure they do not take on the trauma of their mentally unwell patients.

As a mental health nurse, this involves being able to distance yourself from your work, developing healthy coping mechanisms, and most importantly, taking care to look after yourself in your downtime. 

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