The importance of developing compassion in psychiatric nursing

As a psychiatric nurse, one needs to have a lot of skills. Now, most of those skills can be easily learned in school, but there is one that requires a bit more work to develop. That is the skill of empathy. Compassion can be a very valuable skill for people in the medical field, but for those in the psychiatric world especially.

In the field of psychiatric care, nurses will primarily be dealing with mental illness. That can be a very emotional field for the patients. Whether they have been suffering for years under the weight or anxiety or depression, have been dealing with disorders that have affected their relationships, or are dealing with issues that have plagued them their entire lives, they are likely going to be very emotional about how they are dealing with these problems.

Having some much-needed compassion when it comes to dealing with them can be extremely helpful for both the nurse and the patient. Here is what one needs to know about why compassion is so useful, and what one can do to start developing some of their own.

What is compassion in the medical industry?

For many people, compassion and empathy are the same thing. While that is not always true, both are two sides of the same coin. Empathy is when we are aware of what other people are feeling and how we understand it. Compassion is when we have sympathy and a desire to help others who need our help.

For example, if someone close has lost a family member, empathy would be knowing that they are sad due to the loss. Compassion would be the action of sitting with them and talking with them about their loss. The conversation will help them feel better and might help ease the pain they are feeling. Compassion can also make one feel powerful, because in the face of negative emotions or scenarios, it can sometimes be incredibly hard to help out.

For psychiatric care, if someone comes into an office suffering from depression then a nurse needs to have both empathy and compassion for them. For example, empathy would be understanding the pain they are feeling as if it were their own. They might be able to sympathize with the effects the terrible depression has had on their lives and the constant struggle they are going through.

Having compassion means wanting to help a patient get out of that dark place. Anything a nurse can do to ease the pain or give the patient the skills to overcome their own demons is compassionate in nature, and having true compassion means listening and ensuring the patient feels heard.

For many people, they find that they have more compassion and empathy if they can relate to the problem the other person is going through. For example, if a healthcare professional has personal experience with depression, it can be easier to show compassion to patients with depression. This is because it is very likely they have experience with what they are going through and they understand the pain they are feeling.

That being said, one does not need to have gone through what a patient has gone through in order to have empathy for them — nurses can still be aware of how patients feel and why without having gone through the same situation themselves.

Tips for starting to have compassion for others

Nurses can start by using empathy as a base, but if they really want to start having compassion for their patients they need to focus on putting them first. It can be extremely easy, especially as a psychiatric nurse, to see symptoms and start to put patients into various boxes. They can simply start to see depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and more, and then start prescribing patients’ medication and other treatments without ever really getting to know the patient.

Even if a nurse has 20 patients who are all suffering from the same type of generalized anxiety, they all cannot and should not be treated the same. One needs to take the time to understand the story behind the anxiety, the scenarios that trigger anxiety attacks, and the various personal issues that make every single patient different.

It does not matter what is similar about them and their cases, nurses must make sure that they document the differences, because that is what is going to help with treating them better. Additionally, understanding those differences means that nurses can better empathize with the patients.

Patient focused care can seem difficult for many nurses to get comfortable with because it is easy for the nurses to state that they know more than the patients do. However, keeping the care patient centered allows for the patients to take the power into their own hands and really feel like they are being listened to.

Active listening

Speaking of being listened to, many patients who speak about mental health disorders quickly find themselves being hammered with well-meaning advice that might work for others but might not work for them.

With the world of mental health being so massive and people wanting to help those they love who are struggling, it is pretty easy to find information and present it to someone who is suffering in order to help them out. However, most of the information might be incorrect, might not work for the person, or the information might work but the person suffering does not have the energy or capacity to absorb it right now.

If a patient goes to a psychiatric nurse and starts talking about their problems, the nurse needs to practice active listening. They should not be afraid to guide the conversation along and maybe ask a few clarifying questions, but for the most part, the patient should be doing the majority of the talking.

Nurses should avoid leaping into solutions right away for two reasons. The first is that it is likely what everyone else in the patient’s life has been doing, and if it worked, the patient would not be sitting in front of them right now. Secondly, the more of the patient’s story the nurse can understand, the more information they will have.

Some of that information might likely shed some light on a few things and help the nurse create a customized treatment plan for patients. So, nurses should not be afraid to practice and develop active listening skills, because they will continue to help out.

Plus, some of the new patient’s story might be the same as another person’s story. If nurses can draw the parallels and reflect on the success stories, they might be able to keep motivating their current patient to keep fighting.

Have compassion for oneself

The easiest way to learn about having compassion for others is to focus on having compassion for oneself, especially when working with people who are dealing with severe mental health issues. Even if a nurse’s mental health is spotless, being around people who do not have it all together and who are looking for guidance and support can bring them down.

Making sure to take the time for some good self-care is extremely important. Nurses need to focus on taking care of themselves and their own mental health and might even be able to use the same strategies they have talked to their patients about. Doing things like spending time outside, having meaningful rest, eating good meals, and spending time doing the things one enjoys can be great ways to show oneself compassion.

Compassion does not need to be only because one is having a rough day. Someone can have compassion and practice self-care even if they are having the best day ever; practicing compassion for oneself and feeling its positive effects will help one understand how to keep having compassion for others.

Build up a network of other nurses and get help

Some people struggle with having empathy and compassion. It is not because they are heartless sociopaths or completely lack the ability to understand how people feel — some people just are not wired that way. They can be fantastic at the logical and data driven sides of life, but as everyone knows, emotions are messy and hard to understand.

Additionally, some people might be able to pinpoint that someone is sad, angry or upset, without really knowing or understanding the reason why. And even if they know why, they might not know how to actually solve the problem and help the patient. Again, having empathy and compassion is a learned skill that can take some time, and it takes some people more time than others.

If a nurse is having trouble connecting and empathizing with patients, they should not be afraid to talk to other psychiatric nurses, especially those who are more experienced and advanced. As they likely went through the same procedures and had to deal with the same hurdles, having a network of nurses who can teach a nurse everything they need to know about empathy and compassion can really help them out.

While it might seem strange to ask for help when it comes to learning how to be more compassionate and empathetic, we all had to learn at one point. Knowing more information is going to help one become a better psychiatric nurse and will help them provide better care for their patients, so do not be afraid to get that help.

Get back into education

Another way that nurses can develop their empathy and compassion for patients is to head back to school. Reputable online psychiatric nurse practitioner programs can help prepare students for success, such as the Online Master of Science in Nursing – Psychiatric / Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program from Wilkes University (MSN-PMHNP). This program can teach a nurse everything they need to know about becoming a good psychiatric nurse practitioner. Student nurses will be able to not just learn about disease and mental health, but also how to understand people who are different from them and what they have experienced.

For instance, a hospital might find that one of its nurses is handling a lot of the rural, underserved, or culturally diverse sections of their area. Knowing how to support patients as they require help is going to be extremely important, especially if these nurses need to deal with patients who are of a different culture. Having a high degree of cultural competence is going to be extremely important, because different cultures are going to discuss mental health differently. Some cultures or types of people might not understand the clinical terms for mental health, they just know that they feel sad all the time and want it to stop. Other cultures and religions might try to shame the victim, making it hard for them to open up about their mental health due to the guilt of believing they are to blame.

But the more a nurse understands the stories of the patients who come to see them, regardless of anything else, they can focus on helping them out. Plus, they can provide the right kind of patient-centered help without simply putting them into a box and sending them on their way.

Continuing with compassion

Developing compassion might take some time, and that is okay. However, once a nurse has compassion they will not lose it. It is something that will stick with them for the rest of their life, so make sure to focus on developing this lifelong skill. Patients, as well as everyone else in their lives, will certainly enjoy their brand-new compassionate side.

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