What type of support do psychiatric nurses offer to their patients’ families?

psychiatric nurses

Despite playing a pivotal role in the treatment and support of mental health patients, the role of psychiatric nurses is often overlooked. When most people think of getting psychiatric help it isn’t the psychiatric nurse who comes to mind. They think of psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health counselors.

Yet, their numbers underscore just what an important role psychiatric nurses play in providing mental health support and care. According to a 2019 report by the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, there were nearly 16,000 psychiatric mental health nurses in the United States and this number is expected to rise to about 18,000 by 2025.

Many more are needed because many more Americans now suffer from mental health problems that require immediate treatment.

It is estimated that nearly 56 million Americans suffer from a mental health problem or an addiction that requires urgent treatment. A total of 40% of young people aged between 13 and 17 exhibit behavioral problems, and they have alarmingly high rates of substance abuse and associated disorders.

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough trained mental health doctors to deal with these numbers. When the time comes for medical students to specialize, they choose more lucrative and less troublesome branches of medicine.

This has led to a chronic shortage of mental health professionals in the country, and psychiatric mental health nurses are there to fill the gaps that exist within healthcare facilities.

If you are thinking about becoming a psychiatric practitioner, you may ask yourself which route is better to follow: psychiatric nurse practitioner vs psychiatrist. To become a psychiatric health nurse, you need to have a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree, after which you can earn a master’s degree in nursing from a reputable institution such as Spring Arbor University. You should have a few years of nursing practice under your belt, and you also need to be a registered RN in your state. Programs such as this one cover topics like neurobiology and psychopathology for patients of all ages, psychopharmacology and advanced practice in psychiatric mental health.

The training is typically quite long, and it isn’t unusual to spend between six and eight years in school. However, you can do it in a shorter time if you opt for online courses, as offered by Spring Arbor University, which are designed to be more flexible than in-person classes.

As you venture into the world of psychiatric nurse practice, you may already know what sort of help these professionals provide to their patients. In a typical clinical environment such as a hospital or a mental healthcare facility, however, your role extends beyond the patient.

You are expected to provide some assistance to the families of patients in your care. It is important to understand what is expected of you by these families and what you can do to make sure that their needs as regards the patient are met.

Below are some of the roles you will be expected to carry out in this respect. If you want to be an exemplary nurse, you should strive to understand what you can do for each patient’s family to help them understand, give them hope and equip them with coping techniques that they can use when they get home.

Below are some of the things you will be expected to do for families as a mental health nurse:

Help families understand their loved one’s condition

Mental health is complicated and often leaves family members confused. They do not understand what causes poor mental health and they often blame themselves for not being there enough, not seeing the symptoms early enough to provide interventions or seeing the signs but not doing anything.

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A psychiatric nurse helps families understand what the patient is suffering from as much as possible. They talk to them about the cause of the illness, what symptoms are associated with it and what treatments are available. They also discuss what the family can expect going forward so that they can be prepared.

Provide counseling when it is needed

Self-blame when a family member suffers from a mental illness isn’t uncommon, and it can lead to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, despair, fear and even depression and anxiety.

Psychiatric nurses are trained to counsel family members so that they can stop blaming themselves for their loved one’s illness.

Explain the different options that families have

Different illnesses require different treatment procedures, and it is the role of the nurse to present the varying options to the family of the patient.

In many cases, the patient isn’t able to decide or give consent about what treatment they will receive. It falls on their family to weigh the options that are available and make a decision as to which one is best depending on the extent of the illness, financial resources and expected outcomes.

A psychiatric nurse, for example, can explain to the family that rather than just dispense pills and other forms of treatment, the patient will be held for a certain number of hours for further observation and to determine the cause of the illness, the symptoms and what course of action would be best for all concerned.

Talk to families about placement services

Not all mental illnesses can be cured on an outpatient basis. Many times, patients are held in psychiatric hospitals and other mental health facilities until doctors feel that they are doing well enough to go home.

If the doctor recommends an in-house treatment program, it is the job of the nurse to help the family decide where they want their loved one placed. If they have been referred to a hospital, the nurse will explain what they can expect from that particular institution.

Explain the different medications that the patient has been given

When you enroll in psychiatric nurse training, one of the topics that you will cover is pharmacology.

You will learn about drugs for mental health, and you will be expected to talk to families about the different medications that have been prescribed, how they work, the side effects if there are any and also how long the patient is expected to take the medication.

In your capacity, you will talk to them about dosages and how to closely monitor their loved ones to ensure that they take their medication as prescribed.

Provide tips and guidance on home care

After the patient is treated and released, they will go home and they will need specialized care until they get better.

Psychiatric nurses talk to families about how best to take care of their loved ones. They touch on matters such as diet and exercise, ensuring that the patient has enough peace for recovery and how they can avoid triggers.

Guide families toward resources

There are many resources in every state that are allocated to mental health patients, and as a psychiatric nurse, it is your job to know where these resources are and how to access them quickly. You may also guide your patients’ families to reading material that helps them understand their loved ones better and even events such as conferences and seminars where mental illness is discussed.

Talk to families about what symptoms to look out for

Many mental health conditions last a lifetime, and if family members know what to look out for, they can intervene early enough to minimize recurrence. The nurse informs families about how one behaves when the symptoms reappear and how they can get help right away.

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Discuss what may be exacerbating the illness

To make an accurate diagnosis, the doctor needs a full history of the patient, including how they live, where they live and with whom. They discuss the factors that seem to trigger an attack and how the patient acted in the past when they had an episode. They will also talk about where the patient works and whether they have had any problems there. The nurse asks the family to discuss any other factors that they think may be pertinent to the illness.

Crisis intervention and management to families

This is going to be one of your major roles. Often, by the time a patient is brought to a mental health facility, there is a crisis and families are left feeling confused. It will be your job to listen and understand what the crisis may be and to counsel the family on how best they can cope.

In many cases, mental health problems result from drug and alcohol use, and it can wreak havoc before families are forced to seek intervention.

When they do and you are assigned to attend to them, it is your job to help them manage whatever crisis they may be facing at home.

Monitor patients after they are discharged

Patients need a lot of monitoring when they get home to prevent a relapse, and it is the job of the nurse to schedule visits as well as call the family to see whether the patient is taking their medications as prescribed.

What skills do psychiatric nurses need to perform these duties?

These are not requirements that may be explicitly put down in the job description of the average psychiatric nurse, but they come with the territory. To perform competently, the nurse needs to have certain skills:

Good listeners

This is important when they are taking down a patient’s history as well as trying to understand what triggered the illness. They may have to question several family members to get a complete picture, and each person they talk to must be listened to carefully.


It isn’t easy to deal with mental illness, and a good mental health nurse understands that they must treat families the same way they treat patients. They should be able to empathize with how the illness has affected the family and the troubles that they have endured trying to deal with their loved one.


Due to the shortage of mental health practitioners in America, nurses often find themselves handling large caseloads of patients. If they are to succeed in their job, they must be well organized and keep track of each patient and their family’s needs.

Strong attention to detail

If you want to be a good mental health nurse, this is one skill that you ought to develop before you begin nursing. Indeed, it is a soft skill that is required of all nurses because small mistakes can have fatal consequences.


As there aren’t enough nurses in this field, many find themselves working long hours. If they don’t take care of their physical and mental health, they will eventually burn out and break down. Smart nurses eat a balanced diet, avoid processed foods that can cause blood sugar spikes and get enough exercise and sleep. In their free time, they rest and detach themselves from work so that when they resume their duties, they are refreshed and ready to help patients and their families.

Be curious

A good nurse is a curious one. They are always looking for answers and they read widely. They also talk to others in the industry who are more experienced and can provide insight into new modalities of treatment.

Cultural competency

This means that they are able not just to treat but also to work with people from all different backgrounds. They shouldn’t think about race or socioeconomic status. Instead, they should embrace all people equally and have a healthy interest in other cultures.


The demand for psychiatric nurses will continue to rise in the coming years. They provide a vital service, stepping in where other mental health professionals are insufficient. As you prepare to join the profession, it is important to acquaint yourself with the typical role of a mental health nurse as well as what you are expected to do to help the families of patients. The more you know, the more efficient and effective nurse you’ll be.

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