Tag Archives: suicide

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

 

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