October 10 is World Mental Health Day, and nurses are in an excellent position to notice when patients might be suffering from a mental health condition.

Nurses have the knowledge and authority to offer patients the facts about mental health, and they can normalize conditions like depression or anxiety. They can convey the important fact that, like any other medical condition that needs to be treated properly, mental health conditions are a physical and chemical imbalance and not a character flaw.

Although the general attitude toward mental health conditions is gaining more mainstream discussion and acceptance, the attitudes vary greatly. Factors like location or family culture can either normalize depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder make it a forbidden topic. Knowing a little about how your patient sees mental health conditions can help you adapt your approach.

On World Mental Health Day, nurses worldwide can spread the word by offering access to online screening tools through places like Mental Health America or the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. They can offer referrals to area mental health providers if appropriate. This year’s theme focuses on mental health in the workplace, so it’s also a good time to open up discussions in your workplace about paying attention to our own mental health and how it impacts job performance.

But nurses can also just talk about mental health issues in a nonjudgmental manner to put patients at ease. If someone is struggling with something like racing or unusual thoughts, severe anxiety in public places or about specific topics, or experiencing significant impacts to daily life because of sadness, they want to know they are not alone. Nurses can fill that role with care, compassion, and expertise. They are also there to offer hope that with treatment, the person can feel better and can begin to resume a life they are happier with.

Of course, some patients are reluctant to talk about their mental health directly, but they might bring it up in ways that are less obvious. Nurses can ask direct questions or they can listen for clues in conversations. What are your patients saying? Are they gaining or losing weight? Having trouble sleeping? Becoming more argumentative or less engaged with their family and community? Are they missing work or getting in trouble at work for being late or making errors? Are they drinking more or using recreational drugs?

It’s good to remind patients that a mental health condition doesn’t always require medication, although that is often a good option, and it isn’t always a lifelong condition. Other treatments like therapy, stress reduction, and healthy living basics like exercise, quality sleep, and a good diet also help lesson some symptoms. Sometimes problems are a result of a different condition or a side effect of a medication—factors many people don’t know. Getting to the root of the problems will help a patient find the right treatment plan.

The important message is that help is available, treatment works, and that first step can bring them enormous relief. Your positive attitude and compassion can make a big impression and can influence how people see their condition and think about treatment.

On World Mental Health Day, remain alert to what your patients are telling you. You may be able to help change their lives in a way you didn’t expect.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil is a freelance writer based in Bolton, Massachusetts.
Julia Quinn-Szcesuil

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