How Evolution in Psychiatric Nursing Degrees Helps Tackle Mental Health

Psychiatric Nursing Degrees

When it comes to healthcare, there are few fields that have seen dramatic changes in the last 50 years as psychiatry nursing, not least in terms of public perception. And just as people’s ideas about mental health have evolved, so have best practices, education, and training in relation to psychiatric care changed the way that care is provided.

 In this article, we examine the specific changes that have occurred in the field of psychiatric nursing, and how higher education for nurse practitioners has developed to help ensure the highest level of care in the 21st century. In addition, we also look at the typical career path of psychiatric nurse practitioners, as well as the importance of specialist experience and lifelong learning in this journey. 

 Changing landscape with demand at new highs

 There is no question that the 20th century saw a huge change in the way we perceive mental health. With the development of psychiatry and related disciplines, as well as a whole host of different approaches, from psychoanalysis and neuropsychiatry to behaviorism and cognitive therapy, there was significant progress made in our understanding of the way the human mind works, and also how best to treat it.

Now, in the 21st century, there has also been a notable advancement in the public discussion around mental health. From sports people like Serena Williams and Michael Phelps to people from the world of entertainment such as Britney Spears and Ryan Reynolds, there has been an increased willingness for people in the public eye to discuss mental health issues. This is also reflected in the fact that younger generations in particular are today far more readily admit or discuss any matters related to mental health. 

This increased openness is one of the reasons that we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people seeking mental health treatment – people are not only more amenable to the idea of seeking treatment but also more aware of what they need to look for and what kind of help they should seek out.  This is undoubtedly a good thing – the ability to admit to issues, discuss them with others, and ask for assistance or treatment is the first major step on the path to healing. However, this increase in people seeking help is unfortunately also thought to be the result of increased levels of stress, anxiety, and tension in our lives – all problems that were exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and that often have their roots in societal and economic uncertainty.

Increased pressure forms new roles

Naturally, more people seeking out mental health care means more investment and greater potential for further growth thanks to the increased allocation of resources, which in the long term will surely help advance our knowledge and treatment methods. At the same time, these changes have placed an even greater demand on mental health services. In the past decade or so, we have seen heightened pressure on psychiatric medical staff in a wide range of different facilities, from hospitals and psychiatric care wards to doctor’s clinics and outpatient care facilities.

 While all kinds of psychiatric health professionals are in increasing demand, nurse practitioners, in particular, are much sought-after. This is in part due to a relative shortage of qualified psychiatrists able to provide care, but also due to a growing realization of the immense value that experienced, highly trained nursing professionals can provide in this area of health. Indeed, the role of NPs in psychiatric care has grown significantly over the previous ten years and is expected to become ever more crucial in the future, too.

New approaches to treatment

In addition to changing demand, there have also been significant developments in the approach of mental health professionals, as a more sophisticated understanding of the complicated relationship between mental and physical health, diet, exercise, medication, and a whole other host of variables emerges. Although medication, for example, still remains a vital part of dealing with mental health issues, in many cases physicians and nurses today look to examine the patient on a more holistic basis – looking to treat not only the specific issue at hand but to understand the patient in the context of their life situation. In each case, the focus has moved towards the primacy of evidence-based medicine, where treatment is carefully scrutinized in terms of the actual, measurable benefits it is likely to provide for the patient in question.

There has also been a rise in interdisciplinary treatment, where psychiatric professionals will liaise with a wide range of other healthcare staff – be they psychologists, GPs, dietitians, neurologists, speech therapists, or oncologists. After all, we know how diet, brain activity, and other diseases can affect psychological issues, and vice versa. In this kind of approach, psychiatric nurse practitioners often play a crucial role in liaising between departments or clinics to help ensure that patients are receiving the help they need in all relevant areas, as well as providing clear and consistent communication to the patient in question.

Broader understanding and new technology

In the present day, it is also important to have a far broader understanding of socio-economic and cultural issues, particularly as we now have access to a large number of studies that demonstrate just how big an impact that these factors can play in the field of mental health. The best psychiatric nurse practitioners not only have an in-depth understanding of the part that issues like structural or institutional racism, gender disparity, and economic hardship can play in psychiatry but also the ability to think and communicate carefully and effectively in these areas. 

On top of all this, the rise of technology is also greatly impacting the way psychiatric healthcare is delivered. In particular – especially since the pandemic – it has become commonplace for mental health care to be delivered at least in part through video calls and other digital forms of communication, while individual patients are also now able to access a wealth of information online – something that has no doubt helped contribute to the rise in mental health awareness. On the flip side, social media and digital devices also raise other issues of their own. The issue of AI poses a new question mark – though it is already being used in certain areas of psychiatry, such as diagnostics and patient monitoring, it is not yet clear the extent it may or may not transform the way mental healthcare is delivered in the future.

Building expertise through education

Given all of the above, it is perhaps no surprise that psychiatric nursing degrees are being carefully calibrated to help deal with the changing face of psychiatric medicine. One particularly notable development is the creation of an Online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) — Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (MSN PMHNP), which enables students to complete an advanced nursing degree that will also enable them to specialize in the field of psychiatry and to operate as a nurse practitioner in the field of mental health.

Happily, for people who require flexibility in their further education learning, there are several excellent MSN PMHNP online programs available. The MSN PMHNP offered by Wilkes University, for example, can be completed entirely online, which means that it is possible to maintain a full or part-time job for the duration of your study, while there is also no need to relocate to a campus university. Graduates will emerge with a sophisticated understanding of how to assess, diagnose, and treat issues related to mental health and substance abuse, including in relation to children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly. Students focus on carrying out comprehensive medical assessments and methods for providing individual, family, and group psychotherapy. In addition, they also learn how to apply critical thinking skills and use evidence-based medicine to improve patient outcomes.

Always more to learn

Naturally, even upon graduation, students will have much to learn. While there is a lot to be said for fresh perspectives in mental health, experience is also key, which is why young health professionals frequently rely on the advice and nurture of more senior colleagues, particularly in their first months and years on the job. Mentoring roles can also benefit more experienced staff, as they will almost certainly be able to learn much from their younger colleagues, while in the course of a career in psychiatric nursing, peer-to-peer conversations and various training opportunities will also provide countless opportunities to learn and remain up-to-date with new developments.

Indeed, lifelong learning is particularly vital in psychiatric healthcare – a world where there is a steady stream of new findings.  In addition to opportunities for learning within the healthcare environment, many NPs also benefit from following scientific developments through individual reading, their own life experiences, and listening to the experiences of the people that surround them. In each case, the important thing is to keep an open mind and always be ready to learn new things – after all, there is nothing quite so remarkable and hard to truly understand as the human mind.

Reducing stigma

This kind of open approach from nurses is particularly vital when it comes to reducing the stigma around mental illness. Because nurses and nurse practitioners are very often the first port of call and often the closest point of contact with patients, it is vital for them to help encourage a degree of normalization around mental illness, not only in terms of the patients themselves, but also their friends and family, or anyone else involved. This is why degrees such as the ones detailed above also focus on the importance of good communication and understanding mental health issues in their proper context. 

Generally speaking, nurse practitioners can help to reduce stigma by establishing a therapeutic relationship with the patient – where they always strive to treat the patient as an individual and not just an illness, and to advocate for their needs whenever appropriate. This kind of approach is especially important in the field of mental health, where a compassionate and supportive relationship can be especially beneficial. Indeed, it is often the very foundation of positive treatment. 

 A vital challenge of the future

 Overall, we can say that in light of the numerous changes that have occurred in psychiatric healthcare in recent times, combined with the current staffing pressures and ever-changing professional roles, the best psychiatric nurses require a high level of preparation. This is even more true for nurse practitioners, who tend to take on an even higher level of responsibility, and it is encouraging to see that specific degrees, such as the MSN-PMHNP), are available to provide nurses with formal, specialized training that will help them acquire the specific tools and theoretical background to provide the highest level of expertise.

All successful psychiatric nurse practitioners have the right blend of dedication and perseverance needed to thrive and survive in a pressurized environment, and the empathy and soft skills needed to assist patients and help them negotiate any eventual difficulties around mental health diagnosis and treatment. In addition, of course, they also need first-class theoretical and practical training to ensure the highest level of competency in their areas of work, not to mention the organizational and administrative skills required to help ensure their area works as efficiently and as smoothly as possible. Naturally, at all times, the most important thing to bear in mind is the centrality of the patient: By working hard and presenting an open attitude, psychiatric nurse practitioners are able to help provide the care their patients need, and also help break down the stigma around mental health.