How a Better Understanding of Mental Health has Transformed Psychiatric Nursing

Today, psychiatric nursing encompasses a raft of different roles and approaches to care, in hospitals, in specialist centers, and in the community. It’s primarily patient-focused and aimed at getting vulnerable people back to a point where they can live happy, independent lives, or at least make the best of their lives in a care setting. This was not always the case, however. Looking back at the history of the profession enables us to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

The dawn of mental health care

Throughout human history, people have wondered what to do with the mentally ill. Sometimes they were cared for by their families or communities; sometimes they were driven out; and sometimes they were celebrated as sources of spiritual insight. In the Western tradition, the first attempts to care for them were made by the Church. In the early medieval period, mentally ill people began to be locked up in facilities where they were fed but given little support. The first nurses of any sort were individuals sent in by the Church to provide moral instruction and try to save their souls.

The first modern psychiatric institutions

The psychiatric hospital in its modern form first began to emerge in the mid-18th century. Conditions were generally poor and there was little belief that patients could recover, but efforts were made to be kind to them. In the US, everything changed as a result of the Civil War. Society was less willing to give up on brave soldiers who had suffered trauma, so more funding was provided, and nurses, though they still lacked official recognition, began to get wards in order.

The transformational nurse

By the start of the 20th century, the role of the psychiatric hospital had begun to change, as it was understood that some patients might be cured. Linda Richards began to train the country’s first formally recognized psychiatric nurses in ways that will still be familiar today to those of you who keep the Wilkes email handy and are considering undertaking training yourselves. Talking therapies began to emerge, and it finally became clear that by forming a holistic connection with patients, nurses could directly aid their recovery.

Beyond the institution

Since the 1950s, the emphasis has increasingly been on moving mentally ill people out of institutions (or not putting them there in the first place) and on supporting them in the community. There has also been a growing emphasis on preventative care, and nurses have played a key role in this, often leading the way in showing that looking after the whole person, rather than focusing on a single diagnosed illness, can help everybody stay healthier in mind as well as in body.

While history tends to focus on the achievements of doctors, it is nursing – with its focus on healing rather than diagnosis and classification – that has really changed attitudes to mental illness. Thanks to nurses, we now have a much better understanding of what it takes to stay mentally well.