Tag Archives: consultation liaison

Defending Mental Health in Nursing Education

NHS

The Guardian (UK ed), 29 Sep 2014

There was an article in The Guardian (UK edition) recently where a nurse described how ill-equipped they felt to support patients experiencing mental health difficulties. The article included the startling information that, “My nursing course, which I think was excellent, contained no more than three days structured education on caring for patients with mental health problems.”

Umm. That wasn’t an excellent nursing course. That’s a crap nursing course.

Look, us Aussies like to tease the Brits about their weather and cricket team every chance we get, but I’m not accustomed to criticising their nursing courses. The truth is, I do not know enough about nursing courses in the UK to hold any strong opinions about how good or bad they are.

That said, I wonder what the general public would think of hospitals being staffed by nurses who had undertaken, as reported, a three year nursing course that includes only three days of teaching in mental health. I am glad that doesn’t happen in Australia.

Dumbing Down is Dumb

Since July 2000 most of my work has been about supporting mental health care in the general health settings as Consultation Liaison CNC (more about that here) and as Perinatal Mental Health CNC (more about that here). These roles have direct clinical input, but also have a lot to do with supporting general nurses and midwives to feel more confident and become more skilled at providing direct clinical care to people experiencing mental health difficulties. It’s inevitable that they’ll need these skills – a significant proportion of people who access general hospitals and/or maternity services also experience symptoms of depression, anxiety etc. Dumbing-down mental health education for general nurses and midwives is dumb.

elistIn August 2012 a Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) instructor proposed using MHFA as inservice education for hospital-based nurses. I mounted my high horse to defend the depth and quality of nursing education sprouting the opinion that MHFA is not suitable training for RNs. My rant went along the lines of it’s great training for many community and professional groups, but it’s inadequate for those working in health role. Undergraduate nursing programs have more than the 12 contact hours that MHFA offers, and we should re-awaken/build-on that education. Nurses in particular need to know a bit about:

  • symptom detection
  • meanings/implications of diagnostic groups
  • medication effects and side-effects
  • the biopsychosocial model of mental health
  • social determinants of health
  • risk assessment/management
  • emotional intelligence and therapeutic use of self

confpresTo give MHFA their due, they have never claimed their training to be an alternative to formal nursing education (others have). MHFA does a good job at informing first responders, but does not address mental health in a manner suitable for a frontline clinician. There is a community expectation that nurses and midwives will have a depth of understanding of mental health beyond that of the general community, beyond basic fist aid.

This conversation started off as a discussion in the workplace, then became a topic of discussion on the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses e-lists, then morphed into a conference presentation and, more recently, was articulated as this journal article:

Happell, B., Wilson, R> & McNamara, P. (2014) Undergraduate mental health nursing education in Australia: More than Mental Health First Aid. Collegian (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.colegn.2014.07.003

Happell, B., Wilson, R. and McNamara, P. (2014) Undergraduate mental health nursing education in Australia: More than Mental Health First Aid. Collegian (2014), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.colegn.2014.07.003

Anyway, I guess there are two points to this blog post:

One: Quality Control
Let’s make sure that we continue to defend the quality and depth of undergraduate nursing and midwifery training in Australia. We must never let it slip like the UK example of just three days training in three years. That is woefully inadequate.

Two: Speak Up 
If you’re a nurse or midwife with strong opinions about a subject, it doesn’t hurt to discuss these opinions online. As per this example, a discussion held online morphed into a conference presentation and a journal article. For me, anyway, the difference between it being a rant and a paper was the interest and input from a couple of Nursing Academics: Brenda Happell (@IHSSRDir on Twitter) and Rhonda Wilson (@RhondaWilsonMHN on Twitter).

References

Happell, B., Wilson, R. L. & McNamara, P. (2013). Beyond bandaids: Defending the depth and detail of mental health in nursing education. Paper presented at the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses 39th International Mental Health Nursing Conference Perth, Western Australia, Australia. Abstract in International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, Vol 22, Issue Supplement S1, pp 11-12 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/inm.2013.22.issue-s1/issuetoc

Happell, B., Wilson, R. L. & McNamara, P. (2014) Undergraduate mental health nursing education in Australia: More than Mental Health First Aid. Collegian (In Press) http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.colegn.2014.07.003

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Thanks for reading this far. As always, your feedback is welcome in the comments section below.

Paul McNamara, 21st October 2014

Short URL: meta4RN.com/defend

A Mental Health Nurse in the General Hospital

MHCBelow is a copy of the blog post I was invited to submit at My Health Career. The website is targeted at high school and university students considering or pursuing a career in health, guidance officers, career development professionals, and others working in or with the health care sector.

To see the post where it was first published online, and/or to have a look around at the My Health Career website, please visit www.myhealthcareer.com.au/nursing/mental-health-nurse-paul-mcnamara

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A Mental Health Nurse in the General Hospital

Paul trying not to look too much like a goob.

Paul trying not to look too much like a goob.

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 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 speciality 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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Print Version (PDF): CLnurse

Thanks to Amanda Griffiths of My Health Career for inviting me to submit this overview of consultation liaison nursing.

As always, your comments are welcome.

Paul McNamara, 2nd May 2014

 

Trying to Stay Focused

PatientFocused Some days it feels like a cruel conspiracy.

Those are the days when it feels like the time and space I have made to speak one-to-one to the patient* is in the middle of a sports arena. The patient and I walk into the middle of the empty playing surface and make our preparations for meaningful discussion, for emotional catharsis, for education, for counselling, for disclosure, for discovery, for therapy.

Then the grandstands of the arena start filling with people with loud voices. These people are not providing frontline care, so we would like to think of them as supporters. However, they all seem to think of themselves as coaches. They each have their own special area(s) of interest and shout well-meaning advice from their seats in the grandstand.

It gets very rowdy and distracting. SystemsFocused So many supporters coaches. So many systems**.

Systems are what makes airlines so safe – apparently that’s why hospitals have become so system-focused over the last couple of decades. I think it is a bit silly that public health systems try so hard to align themselves with profit-making airline systems. The cost of a regional hospital redevelopment ($454m) is about the same cost as two Boeing 787s (source), However, they serve very different purposes: the hospital is filled with critically ill people aiming to become less unwell or die with dignity. Commercial jets are filled with tourists and business people going on a planned journey. The hospital is a place of unknowns: discovery, diagnosis, treatment, trials and strong, unpredictable human emotions. A commercial jet is a trumped-up bus that travels at a scheduled time on a scheduled route between clearly defined destinations, carrying only people who are wealthy and healthy enough to travel long distances.

Hospitals and airlines have such very different clients, expectations, control and outcomes - can they really teach-each other much about systems?

Nevertheless, I understand the rationale for systems, and will make no effort to argue against them. Still, wouldn’t it be nice if there was one healthcare system? As it stands in my workplace, the emergency department has a system (EDIS) that does not speak to the ICU system (MetaVision), which does not speak to the general hospital system (ieMR), which does not speak to the mental health system (CIMHA). And that’s just within one hospital – imagine how fragmented it gets when we start thinking of the primary healthcare and rural/remote outpatient sectors.

I understand that some of these systems, some of these competing demands, are very important – but not all of them are. For example, it is not important that a clinician spend time away from their patients to transpose a bit of information that is in one hospital system into another hospital system –  this is a matter of dumb systems.

Which is why nurses and other clinicians know that sometimes the safest, most compassionate, and most ethical thing to do is to turn their back on the distractions created by dozens of disjointed systems, and make the priority to simply be with the patient.

Why? Because we are trying to stay focused - patient focused.

*Clarification re using the word “Patient”

In mental health over the last couple of decades nomenclature has changed from “patient” to “client” to “consumer” or “service user”. I understand the rationale for this – it is to move away from the passive (i.e.: “patient” as someone that the “expert” diagnoses and fixes) to participant (i.e.: “informed “consumer” of a service). In my current role I provide mental health assessment, support and education in a general hospital – the people I see are, in this context, first-and-foremost medical/surgical/obsetric hospital inpatients. It is these people’s physical health that had them admitted to an acute general hospital as “patients”, hence my use the word here.

**All the systems named in the “Systems Focused” cartoon are real, as is the claim that using each one is VERY IMPORTANT.

Tech Tip

I used an easy-to-use iPad app called Notes Plus to draw the cartoons. As you can see, my artistic skills have pretty-much plateaued since kindergarten, as has my spelling. Nevertheless, I think the cartoon might have been a little better and a lot easier to draw if I had used a stylus – that’s what I would recommend if you plan to do something similar.

End

As always, your thoughts/feedback is welcome in the comments section below.

Paul McNamara, 6th April 2014

Perinatal Mental Health: A Good News Story

diabetes, for instance

diabetes, for instance

Most health messages are such a downer, surely there are many people who will either switch-off from the message, or become unduly alarmed. Compare health marketing to commercial marketing and it’s no wonder obesity is rising. Put frankly, Coca-Cola and McDonalds have better ads: they’re full of fun and optimism:

Things Go Better With Coke!  

McDonalds – I’m Lovin’ It! 

Don’t get me wrong: depression is a bugger of a thing, and perinatal mood disorders are especially poorly timed. Looking after a pregnancy/baby is tricky enough without tossing in anxiety and/or depression.

However, at the risk of sounding all Pollyanna about it, there are some good news stories we can talk about when discussing perinatal mental health. Here’s a small list of things I’d like mentioned in every antenatal class/similar forum for parents-to-be/new parents:

IMG_0328[1] 6 in 7 new mothers and 19 in 20 new fathers will not experience perinatal depression. Are there any other gambles that give you better odds?

[2] Symptoms are usually easy to recognise. There’s even a free online anonymous self-scoring tool available: justspeakup.com.au/epds

[3] If somebody is not sure how to start a conversation about mental health with their midwife, doctor or child health nurse, there’s a handy online tool to help build a checklist of things to mention: docready.org

[4] Information and resources are easy to find. In Australia the “big five” are:

[5] Support is easy to find too:

[6] There are a range of treatment options: it’s not a matter of  “one size fits all”.

[7] If required, there are some medications that can be used in pregnancy and/or breastfeeding.

[8] Recovery rates for postnatal depression are very good.

[9] Some places have access to specialist perinatal mental health clinicians.

[10] Mental health clinicians are not interested in stealing the baby. In fact, mental health clinicians seem quite pleased with themselves when they get to see parents and infants connecting and communicating with each other.

[11] If attachment between parent and baby does not happen as easily as expected (this happens a fair bit with anxiety and/or depression), there are video guides to help, for example: Baby Cues Also, in some towns and cities (especially those with a perinatal and infant mental health nurse), there are clinical staff who can help with this communication/attachment/bonding stuff too.

What’s This About Exactly?

During the week a couple of new mums declined referral to see a nurse (me) from the consultation liaison psychiatry service because they had preconceptions about how negative the experience would be. It’s not absolutely necessary for every parent to see a mental health specialist, of course, but I think we (that’s “we the health professionals”) should start fishing-around for ways to better describe the good news stories about perinatal mental health.

diabetes, that is

diabetes, that is

If Coca-Cola and McDonalds can convey a sense of fun and optimism out of the products they sell, surely we can convey a sense of fun and optimism out of the services we provide. We have something that’s much better than the offerings of either Coca-Cola or McDonalds, so let’s reorientate the language and recalibrate expectations by using positive language.

Maybe when perinatal and infant mental health (PIMH) services in Queensland are re-established, we can re-launch with an upbeat attitude and slogan:

 PIMH for a healthy head-start!

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What are your ideas for upbeat slogans and messages? Please add them in the comments section below.

Paul McNamara, 25th January 2014

Nursing’s Peculiar Privilege

Dear Reader: please don’t read this blog post if you are offended by strong swear words or find talk of suicide a trigger for unsettling/risky thoughts. Kind Regards, Paul.

Who is Going Behind the Curtains?

Working over Christmas and New Year made me especially cognisant of one of the peculiar privileges that we nurses have: we spend a lot of one-to-one time with the person who is medically/surgically recovering after a suicide attempt. My current role is Consultation Liaison Mental Health Nurse – a role that provides mental health assessment, support and education in a general hospital (more info about the role here). When the person is admitted to the general hospital after a non-fatal suicide attempt we are asked to be involved in planning and providing their care.

There are few things more privileged and more important than spending time with the person who is alive after deciding not to be. I do worry that this role is sometimes delegated to the least qualified (and lowest paid) member of frontline clinical care: the Assistant In Nursing (AIN) when there is “nursing special” in place (i.e.: when there are concerns that the person may abscond and/or harm themselves again).

Naturally, being an AIN does not mean you are incapable of sensitive, compassionate, safe care. I just think that “going behind the curtains” to assist in holding and containing the often very strong emotions of the person who has survived suicide is incredibly important. I don’t feel comfortable that someone without mental health qualifications or clinical supervision is tasked with sitting at the bedside for hours at a time. It may not be good for the either the person/patient or the AIN.

Suicide rates per year. Chart courtesy of www.mindframe-media.info

Suicide rates per year. Chart courtesy of http://www.mindframe-media.info

Parallel Processes

In clinical supervision we often explore the parallel processes and how they apply to our clinical work. When working in perinatal mental health I aimed for the therapeutic relationship to be a template for the parent-child relationship: kind and nurturing, responsive and interactive, empowering, educative and enjoyable. The idea being that, at some level, the qualities/values that inform the therapeutic relationship can then have a knock-on effect for the relationship the parent has with their baby. Not many perinatal mental health clinicians have an abrupt, cold, clinical style of interacting with their clients: they tend to be warm, gentle communicators.

When nursing the person who has survived suicide we need to think about parallel processes again. Julie Sharrock (a rock star of consultation liaison nursing) first introduced me to the phrase “holding and containing” as a part of the therapeutic relationship. Traditionally the notion of holding and containing has been attributed as a function of the inpatient setting/building: a place to keep people safe. Julie introduced it to me as a way to keep people safe, by reframing it as a concept for interpersonal therapy. That is, we nurses can assist and model the act of holding and containing difficult emotions.

For the person who has unexpectedly found themselves alive and in hospital after intending to end life, we may need to hold and contain the person physically for a short time, but (to my way of thinking) it is even more important to support the person to hold and contain their thoughts and feelings.

Thoughts are slippery, and prone to be dropped.

Feelings are brittle, and prone to cracking.

Holding and containing such difficult-to-secure, fragile things is fraught: the clinician needs their thoughts and emotions held and contained too. Its a parallel process: as I’ve discussed previously we need to nurture the nurturers.

Suicide rates per age group (2010). Chart courtesy of www.mindframe-media.info

Suicide rates per age group (2010). Chart courtesy of http://www.mindframe-media.info

Profound Moments

Some of the most profound moments of my working life have occurred while supporting the person who has survived suicide.

The incredibly dark humour: “I’m such a fucking loser I can’t even kill myself properly!” said the very nice man. He was not laughing out loud, but smiling at the grim absurdity of his situation. He was alive, but physically worse-off than when he decided to die: now fractured, urinating through a tube, receiving fluids and antibiotics via an IV line. More wounds. More pain. Yet, despite the extra physical insults, he was pleased that he had survived.

The worry: “Is my brain OK? I feel really agitated and confused.” asked the lady who had been in intensive care for a few days. Her brain was OK in the long-term, the distress she was experiencing was mostly short-term stuff:  delirium is really common amongst ICU patients. Hypoxic patients aren’t so lucky: they sometimes never recover the former function of their brain.

“You are the biggest fucking cunt that has ever existed in the whole world!”, said the man after being told he was unable to leave hospital. I was filling-in paperwork that would mean he was an involuntary patient as per the Mental Health Act. I didn’t think I was being particularly nasty. The mental health act is handy because there are times when I need to say, “It seems to me that you don’t have the capacity to keep yourself safe at the moment. So,  I’ll take some of the responsibility of keeping you safe for now. Naturally, we will hand the job back to you when you come good.” Using that framework, filling-in the paperwork for the mental health act is sometimes the most nurturing thing I can do. That’s why i was genuinely surprised, not offended, when he said, “You are the biggest fucking cunt that has ever existed in the whole world!” I asked, “Really? Worse than Hitler?” He laughed and said, “Yeah, Definitely.” I laughed too. Take that Hitler.

The person who had two high perceived lethality, but fortunately non-fatal, attempts to take his life in the fortnight before we met reworded Shakespeare’s famous opening line to Hamlet. Instead of saying, “To be, or not to be, that is the question”, he said, “After what I have experienced in hospital, I now think that it is better to have a difficult life rather than no life at all.” I was so pleased to hear him think that way, and at the same time felt so sad for those people who do not have the opportunity to reconsider: those people that bypass the hospital wards and go straight to the morgue.

These are profound moments in the lives of people.

Nurses, myself included, have the peculiar privilege of being with the people who are experiencing the most important days of their life: the first few days of life that they planned not to have.

Let’s not take that peculiar privilege of nursing lightly.

In Closing

Talking and thinking about suicide can be distressing. Australians can access support via:

 Lifeline – 13 11 14

Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467

MindHealthConnect www.mindhealthconnect.org.au

phone_hotline-40Outside of Australia and not sure where to get support? Google usually displays a red telephone icon and your country’s suicide support phone number when searching for a suicide-related topic.

As always, comments and feedback on the blog post is welcome. Suicide can be a sensitive topic to comment on, and this blog is the public arena; so, before wording your comment, please check-out this: Mindframe guide

Paul McNamara, 19th January 2014

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Car vs Bike Wounds: even an illustration that completely lacks artistic merit can convey a lot of information more effectively than a page full of text.

Gingerbread Person Pic “Car vs Bike Wounds”. Even an illustration that completely lacks artistic merit can convey a lot of information more effectively than a page full of text.

This week at work we have been discussing the roll-out of the ieMR (integrated electronic Medical Record). At present it is not integrated with the existing mental health system (CIMHA: Consumer Integrated Mental Health Application), the existing emergency department system (EDIS: Emergency Department Information System) or the existing intensive care unit system (CIS: Clinical Information System). Let’s not be too distracted by that though – apparently there is an integration team beavering away in a back room somewhere: they’re teaching these hospital systems to talk to each other. Once that’s sorted-out the ieMR will be the best thing since bung fritz.

A hospital file diagram such as this can assist in conveying an understanding of the patient's experience.

A hospital file diagram such as this can assist in conveying an understanding of the patient’s experience.

A different thought crossed my mind though – will the ieMR make the bad art of gingerbread women/men, genograms and other diagrams obsolete?

I hope not – even my hastily drawn-on-an-envelope examples used on Twitter during the week and in this post convey meaning quickly and easily (hopefully). Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for typing words into a digital archive (in fact, I’m doing it right now!), but there are times where it is clearer to communicate with an illustration. I hope this is not lost as we transition to an electronic medical record.

The patient is the expert. The clinician asks them about their family and draws a genogram to organise information. Sometimes genograms explain a lot.

The patient is the expert. The clinician asks them about their family and draws a genogram to organise information. Sometimes genograms explain a lot.

Does your hospital/health agency have an electronic record that easily allows illustrations still? If so (or not) I would be grateful to hear from you in the comments section below.

Paul McNamara, 21st September 2013

Emotional Aftershocks

Warning: today I will take the risk of being ridiculed for over-sharing and being melodramatic (it’s a grand tradition amongst bloggers).

8683188_lgCrap Day at Work

Recently at work I spent a bit of time wondering whether I, one of my nursing colleagues, or one of the hospital patients or visitors was going to sustain a life-threatening brain injury at the hands of a man brandishing a fire extinguisher as if it were a weapon. Fire extinguishers are generally thought of as potentially life-saving devices. However, when a fire extinguisher is being held at shoulder height by a tall, fit, powerful young man on a violent rampage in a medical ward they don’t look like life-savers.

Fire extinguishers weigh 9kg and are made of steel. The fire extinguisher this man was holding looked a lot like a skull-cracking device to me. It was the most frightening workplace incident I have experienced.

I have been a nurse for 25 years. Like many nurses I have been struck while at work (39% of nurses have experienced physical violence according to this recent Australian survey, 36% worldwide says this quantitative review). I am lucky: I have only been hit by frail people with delirium or dementia, so have never been hurt – just surprised and amused. To illustrate: once, an elderly lady forgot I was the nurse making her bed, and suddenly started punching me (with the strength of a wet kitten) saying, “Stop it Malcolm! Don’t take my money from under the mattress and go to the pub again! You’re such a bastard Malcolm!” It was pretty funny – always wondered whether Malcolm was a memory from her past or a distortion of the present (probably a bit of both).

Zero Tolerance is Unrealistic and Unfair

I am not a fan of being abused or hit, but think that the “Zero Tolerance” campaigns that have popped-up in health services in Australia over the last 5-10 years are unrealistic and unfair.

This shouty "ZERO TOLERANCE NO EXCUSE FOR ABUSE" poster hangs in the main corridor of a medical ward, adjacent to the nurses station.

This shouty “ZERO TOLERANCE NO EXCUSE FOR ABUSE” poster hangs in the main corridor of a medical ward, adjacent to the nurses station.

Unrealistic because it is inevitable that health services, hospitals especially, will have a large percentage of patients who have cognitive and perceptual deficits due to the very medical condition that has them bought them to the health facility in the first place. More than half of older persons admitted to hospital will experience delirium, and about 9% of the over-65s (a significant component of health service users) have dementia. Often these people will not have the cognitive capacity to discriminate between friend and foe, and will, at times, lash out to defend themselves against a perceived threat. We can look out for the warning signs and be proactive in protecting ourselves, but we can not expect to transfer responsibility for our safety onto someone who does not have the cognitive capacity to even keep themselves safe.

In the health system it is very common to be spending time with people who are having the most traumatic, frightening and disempowering day(s) of their life. It would be lovely for staff if everyone experiencing acute emotional distress expressed their emotions in a clear, calm and composed manner, but is it realistic?

The “zero tolerance” concept is unfair because it is not reciprocated. We (that’s “we” as in “we the health system”) require patients and their loved-ones to be incredibly tolerant of us. Think waiting lists, physical discomfort, unplanned delays, unclear communication, unmet expectations, cancelled procedures, lack of privacy, lack of dignity, lack of control, lack of compassion, lack of progress… the list could go on. Can you find me a health facility where no patient has ever experienced these things? Our health system relies on people being tolerant – this “zero tolerance” malarkey doesn’t allow for a bit of crap.

Care and Crap

"Nursing ring theory: Care goes in. Crap goes out." courtesy of http://www.impactednurse.com/?p=5755 [thank you Ian]

“Nursing ring theory: Care goes in. Crap goes out.” courtesy of http://www.impactednurse.com/?p=5755 [thank you Ian]

Instead of zero tolerance, it is more realistic to expect that patients will occasionally need to vent their emotions. Not just the pleasant emotions like love, joy, gratitude and kindness, but also the less comfortable human emotions like grief, anger, sadness, worry, despair, frustration, fear, pain and hate. For these emotions swear words are adjectives, a raised voice is empowering, tears are cathartic.

In “Nursing Ring Theory” (more info here: impactednurse.com) when someone is in a ring that is smaller than the ring you are in you offer support, compassion, care and skilful expertise. When someone is in a ring that is larger than yours you are allowed to ventilate your emotions with them. It is pure client centred care: everyone sends care going towards the direction of the patient and accepts that there will be crap coming out at times.

This acknowledgement of crap coming out is not an offer to hold out nurses and other health care workers as targets for abuse. That’s not OK. However, let’s shelf the zero tolerance crap: of course we’re tolerant of people ventilating their emotions. All we ask is that nobody is put at risk and those closest to direct patient care also have an avenue to safely ventilate their crap.

In ring theory care goes towards the patient and crap moves away from the patient. Proximity to the centre of the ring will be a fair predictor of the intensity of both care and crap.

Fire Extinguisher Guy* 

Fire extinguisher guy is admitted to a medical ward for investigation of possible neurological disorder, but it might be something mental health related. So the Consultation Liaison CNC (me) spent a lot of time talking to fire extinguisher guy before the violent outburst, and again afterwards.

Fire extinguisher guy works hard, is creative, can be warm and funny at times; sadness, anger and tears bubble-up during our conversation then settle quickly. Talking to someone is both distressing and helpful, says fire extinguisher guy. He wants to get these strong, bouncing-all-over-the-place emotions under better control. Fire extinguisher guy’s experience of terrible abuse in childhood and his recent over-the-top cannabis and alcohol use wouldn’t be helping his labile hypomanic symptoms.

Fire extinguisher guy isn’t an unlikable person – he has a job, a car, a girlfriend, workmates, footy mates, other friends and a family. Fire extinguisher guy and the people who love him are all normal people. Fire extinguisher guy is one of the 20% of Australians who will experience problems with their mental health this year.

I am really grateful that fire extinguisher guy made the choice to direct his violence at property and not people. He had the capacity to make a very bad decision to hurt somebody; he chose not to. The only person physically harmed during this violent outburst was fire extinguisher guy himself: cuts from punching glass, bruises from punching and kicking windows, doors and walls of the medical ward.

I can’t figure out how long fire extinguisher guy’s violent outburst lasted. Replaying the scene in my mind I guess it was less than 2 minutes, but it’s like time measured in dog years… even though everything happened very quickly it somehow felt like slow motion too.

The fire extinguisher had been hurled into a storeroom doorway (THUD! CRACK!), the outburst was tentatively over, and fire extinguisher guy’s mum and i were lightly holding him and talking to him quietly when security arrived. Fire extinguisher guy allowed us to lead to him to an empty room and was cooperative with all of our suggestions and interventions. He apologised first to me, then to each of the other clinicians who provided care in those first couple of hours after the event. His apologies were heartfelt. He let the nurses, the doctor and the cleaner go about their business uninterrupted: his wounds were dressed, he accepted oral medications to dampen the intensity of his emotions, the blood and broken glass were cleaned-up, the other patients and visitors were reassured, detailed file entries were made, incident reports were filled-in, and negotiations between various members of the hospital’s multidisciplinary team were underway. The request for transfer off the medical ward could not be accommodated, but the insistence on two security guards overnight for staff and patient safety was.

Those of us up-close-and-personal to the incident took a couple of moments to exchange thoughts, but we tried not to get too bogged down in feelings at the time – it’s the beginning of the shift and fire extinguisher guy is just one of many patients on this busy medical ward.

Hole punched in the wall? No problem! One of the nurses covered the hole with this poster. Nurses are good at irony.

Hole punched in the wall? No problem! One of the nurses covered the hole with this poster. Nurses are good at irony.

There is a hole in the wall that fire extinguisher guy created by punching it. One of the senior nurses on the medical ward covers the hole in with an anti-violence poster. We all laugh at the delicious irony and get on with our jobs.

As with the poster covering the hole, we crudely paper-over the cracks… it’s not fixing a problem, just covering it over… that’s good enough for now.

Emotional Aftershocks

In the days that follow I find myself a bit preoccupied at times thinking about the event. Get teary every now and then when I think of what could have happened: those skull-cracking thoughts are the worst bit… acquired brain injury anyone?

Skull-cracking thoughts are from my fear and imagination not from what actually happened.

That’s a good reminder. Keep saying that.

I’m OK: no flashbacks, no vivid dreams, no avoidance, no hyperarousal. I was back at work the next day (left a few hours early because I stayed back a few hours with fire extinguisher guy the night before). I’m seeing patients in the same medical and surgical wards, spending time with my very supportive colleagues.

I’m OK: I’m resisting the urge to quietly whisper to every fire extinguisher in the hospital, “Stay where you are my little red friend. Stay gently hooked on the wall. Do not allow yourself to be raised higher than my head. Please don’t go violently leaping about medical wards – people don’t like that THUD! CRACK! sound you make. Stay exactly where you are my little red friend.”

I’m OK: I’ve told the story a few times now – it’s losing its potency. The funny bit about the poster is good – every story needs a punchline (you’re welcome). The scary bit about the fire extinguisher is getting less vivid – it feels more like a story from the past now. It’s turning into a half-joke about fire extinguishers staying on walls exactly where they belong.

I’m OK: the only thing I’ve noticed is a bit of kummerspeck (great word, eh?). Kummerspeck is a German word that literally translates as “grief-bacon” – it refers to the weight gained through emotional over-eating. I’ve had to let my belt out a notch, and my favourite shirt feels too tight. Still going to the gym, so it must be the eating, Better keep an eye on that.

Yeah yeah yeah. If you’re so OK why are you blogging about it?

Part of the motivation is catharsis. Very self-indulgent, I know.

More importantly, senior clinicians should offer information and support that will empower and protect junior clinicians. Just a few days after the most frightening workplace incident I have experienced these two tweets popped-up on Twitter:

I do not know either of these people IRL (In Real Life), but I do feel a tremendous responsibility towards Emily, Dani and any other nearly-nurse who is as enthusiastic and passionate as these two. But what to say to Emily and Dani? How do we nurture them safely into our profession and keep their enthusiasm intact?

Nursing – mental health nursing especially – needs people like Emily and Dani.

Sharing a battle story is not enough.

Referring to a patient as “fire extinguisher guy” is not a good example to set (more about that later – look for the red asterisk*).

As a senior nurse I should be supportive and encouraging to Dani, Emily and other enthusiastic nearly-nurses, and also be providing safety-tips and useful hints. I have two:

One: Make Like a Boy Scout

Be prepared.

Be prepared for some fantastic days at work where you’ll glide home feeling like you’re doing the most important and rewarding work that any one human can do. Those will be the days where you will use your knowledge-base, your skill-set and (most importantly) yourself to make a profoundly positive difference in somebody’s life. That person might never forget you.

Not every nurse gets exposed to violence or abuse, but you’ll see it up-close-and-personal through your patient’s eyes sometimes. Nurses do emotional labour: be prepared for the emotional aftershocks that come with the job. Find out about stress reactions and how to be pro-active in protecting yourself. I have an old, kind-of-dicky resource to share with you here, but you might find something better.

Two. Nurture the Nurturer

I’ve written about this before: meta4RN.com/nurturers

I am so angry that my nurse and midwife colleagues don’t have ready access to clinical supervision as a tool to reflect on practice and keep themselves (and their patients) safe. People say it would be too expensive to provide clinical supervision to every nurse who wants it, but there is huge cost already being paid. This cost (in terms of relationship stress, sleep disturbance, emotional trauma, anxiety, depression, substance use and kummerspeck) is being borne by individual nurses and the people who love them. Clinical supervision allows another way – through guided reflective practice many of these costs can be prevented.

I don’t see why looking after a nurse’s practice and emotional self through regular confidential support with a trusted colleague would be any less important than looking after a nurse’s back. Australian health facilities all have tools, time and training devoted to safe lifting, it is time to provide tools, time and training devoted to safe thinking.

Clinical supervision is available to mental health nurses, but not nurses in general hospital wards. In his epic novel Catch-22, Joseph Heller wrote:

People knew a lot more about dying inside the hospital, and made a much neater, more orderly job of it. They couldn’t dominate Death inside the hospital, but they certainly made her behave. They had taught her manners. They couldn’t keep death out, but while she was in she had to act like a lady. People gave up the ghost with delicacy and taste inside the hospital.

It is the nurses that make death and illness more neat, orderly and ladylike.

It is the nurses who paper-over the holes punched in the walls.

It is the nurses who stay on the ward to make sure that care keeps going in.

The nurses should be provided with an avenue to let crap out.

Guided reflective practice (aka clinical supervision) should be available for all nurses and midwives.

Closing Remarks

I would like to leave the story there because I have waffled-on for a long time already. However, it is necessary to address two tricky subjects raised in this blog post: [1] mental health and violence, and [2] my use of “fire extinguisher guy” when referring to a hospital patient.

Mental Health and Violence

Let’s get the facts straight:

  • the overwhelming majority of people who experience mental health problems are not violent: never have been and never will be
  • most violence is not perpetrated by people with a mental health problem
  • people who experience mental health problems are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators

I started specialist education in mental health nursing in 1993 and have spent most (not all) of my career working in clinical mental health nurse positions since then. I have never been physically assaulted by a person experiencing mental health problems. Never. However, earlier in the week there was a newspaper article reporting that “half of the nurses working on hospital psychiatric wards are themselves suffering from mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.” I know that I have been more fortunate than some of my colleagues.

There are lots of myths and misunderstandings about mental health and violence. Please scroll to the bottom of the post for evidence-based resources and references.

Explanatory Note re the use of “Fire Extinguisher Guy”*

Using the term “Fire Extinguisher Guy” protects confidentiality and is, obviously, an irreverent, playful way to refer to a person. I don’t think this is wise for somebody creating a professional social media portfolio – somebody might think I’m being disrespectful.

Yet, here i am doing it anyway. Why?

Irreverence, humour and playfulness can be useful defence mechanisms: used correctly they can trivialise the other/traumatic events and empower the self. During the event I did what I could (very little) to assist this man to regain control and to keep himself and others safe from physical harm. It would not be useful to dwell on how powerless and vulnerable we all were at that time. I spent many hours talking to the man both before and after the event and treated him with kindness, respect and dignity.

Care goes in. Crap goes out.

This blog post is some crap coming out.

End

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome (scroll down).

Paul McNamara, 11th August 2013

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References and Resources re Mental Health and Violence

SANE Australia have a very readable resource, downloadable fact sheet and MP3 file here

Queensland MIND Essentials includes a resource for nurses and midwives caring for a person who is aggressive or violent here

The references below are via Australia’s Mindframe National Media Initiative:

New South Wales Health. (2003). Tracking tragedy: A systemic look at suicides and homicides amongst mental health inpatients. First report of the NSW Mental Health Sentinel Events Review Committee.

Walsh, E., Buchanan, A., & Fahy, T. (2002). Violence and schizophrenia: Examining the evidence. British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 490-495.

Noffsinger, S. G., & Resnick, P. J. (1999). Violence and mental illness. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 12, 683-687.

Brennan, P. A., Mednick, S. A., & Hodgins, S. (2000). Major mental disorders and criminal violence in a Danish birth cohort. Archives of General Psychiatry, 57, 494-500.