Clinical placements

Mental health nurses need training to treat physical ailments

Physical and mental health are linked, and giving mental health nurses more training would enable them to manage the physical health of patients better, says third-year nursing student Amy Baker. 

Physical and mental health are linked, and giving mental health nurses more training would enable them to manage the physical health of patients better, says third-year nursing student Amy Baker.

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If nurses are to take a ’whole person’ approach they need the right skills.
Picture: iStock

A community placement in my second year of training really opened my eyes to the lack of physical healthcare for patients with mental health issues.

I worked with people with severe mental health problems on this placement, many of whom also had serious physical health issues such as heart problems, diabetes and respiratory diseases. It was clear that the long-term mental health problems they experienced were exacerbated by poor management of their physical health.

A report from NHS England, published in May, found that people with severe mental illnesses die around 15-20 years earlier than the average life expectancy. Co-morbidities are common in this client group, yet addressing the physical health needs of mental health patients has not always been seen as a priority in mental health services.

Better care

The report highlights the need for physical and mental health care to be given parity, including a greater emphasis on nurse training. Mental health nurses I worked with said they do not have enough skills in this area, and more training in physical health would enable them to provide better care.

Mental health nurses advise patients on issues such as exercise and smoking cessation, but we need to go beyond this. As a nursing student, I do not feel confident caring for patients’ physical health beyond the basics, such as monitoring blood pressure and heart rate, and would like to be more competent in this.

I want to know how to respond more efficiently to abnormalities in physical observations. If more physical health training was available mental health nurses would be able to offer a more person-centred approach to care and help prevent patients dying prematurely from preventable illnesses. This also requires better partnership between general and mental health nurses.

Time and resources

From my practice experience I have learnt that time and resources are another major barrier to effectively monitoring physical health, particularly in community settings where time with patients is limited and you do not have access to the same resources as in a hospital.

It is clear that physical and mental health are linked. The physical health issues of those with severe mental health problems need to be given greater priority, but this is not being addressed as well as it should be.

If nurses are to take a ’whole person’ approach they need the right skills.

I aim to learn as much as I can about the physical health needs of mental health patients, and hope to see more training offered in future.


amyAmy Baker is a third-year mental health nursing student at the University of York

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