In the world of nursing, professionals encounter all types of people with various backgrounds, cultures, disabilities and health needs. Recognition of mental health and mental illness is an important task for health care workers. Yet, even more important is distinguishing and addressing underlying opinions or biases that may come through when caring for this vulnerable population. In the initiatives of Healthy People 2020, mental health is a significant part of the goals to be reached.
This paper will address the attitudes found on a neurology floor in a large hospital and will attempt to show an educational method to help practitioners reflect on their personal beliefs and understand how these may affect the care they give. Through advocacy, education and cultural competency it is possible to gain new perspectives and develop caring and nurturing relationships with patients seen as ‘different’. According to Aday (2001) as sited in de Chesnay and Anderson (2012), “The populations with mental illness is usually defined broadly to include even those individuals with mild anxiety and depression” (p. ).
This definition of populations with health disparities represents a large percentage of patients seen on a general medical floor. Patients are in vulnerable situations and are than further affected by the potential biases of their care givers. The term ethnocentric bias as stated in de Chesney and Anderson (2012) “refers to the notions that one’s own cultural beliefs, practices, folkways, values, and norms are the right ones” (p. 446). As individuals it is easy to see how people tend to stick with what is familiar. Mental illness has long been misunderstood through the ages.
Therefore, several myths and biases can be found regarding the state of a person with mental illness. Moreover, mental illness is often thought of as less than real compared to physical ailments which are not under a person’s control (Roush, 2012). This type of thinking can be dangerous when taking care of patients with not only medical conditions but psychological ones as well. While working on a neurology floor there has been some witnessing of substandard care given to patients who display psychological tendencies of anxiety or depression or those with a written history of mental illness.
Often times it can be seen where practitioners roll their eyes or make comments about patient’s annoying behaviors and more than likely they will try and leave those particular patients alone in order to avoid having to deal with additional psychological needs. Unfortunately, the myths and misunderstanding of mental illness creates a gap in genuine patient care. Most of the time these negative attitudes correlate with a lack of knowledge and limited experience with this particular population (Roush, 2012).
As mental health becomes more recognized and accepted across all ages, races and backgrounds, Healthy People 2020, addresses the need accordingly. The goal is thus to improve mental health through access, prevention and quality mental health services. There are several reasons to put mental health on the forefront of public awareness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental disorders are the most frequent cause of disability. In addition to that, it can be said that mental health and physical health are closely related, with one impacting the other in a continuous cycle (Healthy People, 2020).
Read and Fitzgerald (2005) as cited in Morris et al. ,(2001), states that “we know that providing nurses with relevant information and education has the potential to improve attitudes towards people with a mental illness by reducing fear and stigma”(p. 461). It is also the opinion of this writer that continued education and self-inspection may help cause a shift in how a practitioner treats patients with mental illness. If education was available and mandatory on a medical floor to expose nurses to updated statistics, case studies, and self-exams it would benefit them and their patients.
The tool initiated for the purpose of this project is that of a PowerPoint which describes mental health, applies possible biases to a case study, gives an example of personal testimony from a patient with both physical and mental health needs, and shows how mental health affects us all. By approaching the audience in this way it is hopeful that a large population will be reached and recurring educational Power Points where updated information can be processed and reviewed often.
The goal is to increase internal awareness and potentially reduce stigmas. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done. In this situation, the writer, created a point of education to refresh practitioners of mental health issues and help them view their own biases and behaviors while hopefully correct them. However, it is pointed out by Corrigan and Penn (1999), that even though it is suggested that education can diminish discrimination, not enough long term research has been done to show lasting effects on attitudes.
When working in the health care field, practitioners of all backgrounds and cultures will then take care of patients with just as many backgrounds and cultures. This fact makes it crucial that practitioners are continuously checking themselves on the status of their cultural competency and advocacy for patients. The statistics of mental health and mental illness don’t lie. It is of great importance that nurses are prepared to deal with such a vulnerable population.
Tackling the problem at the core of stigmas, myths, and biases is the key to change. Continued education and information allows nurses to stop and think about how they will affect their patient at the most basic level. Roush (2012) got it perfect when stating that “Examining our own attitudes and biases is the first step. It’s important to realize that it’s never just anxiety or just depression; these disorders can have as many negative consequences as any physical ailment, affecting a person’s health, quality of life, and longevity”(p. 7).