Psychiatric nursing is a specialized field of nursing that involves providing comprehensive mental health care to individuals, families, groups, and communities in a variety of settings. Psychiatric nurses assess, diagnose, form treatment plans, and monitor patients with psychiatric conditions, administering medication and psychotherapy.
In this blog post, we’ll provide an in-depth description of what psych nursing is like, which includes the highlights and challenges of the role, as well as first-hand accounts from psych nurses who shed light on what you can expect if this is a nursing specialty you’d like to practice. For more information, please refer to Nursa’s comprehensive guide on psych nursing, which answers all the frequently asked questions about this nursing specialty, including “How much does a psych nurse make?”, “Is psych nursing hard?”, “Why choose psych nursing?”, and more.
What Is Psych Nursing Like? Perspectives from Psych Nurses
There’s no better way to know what psych nursing is like than to hear directly from the nurses who are working in psychiatric units. The following perspectives give a balanced view of this crucial and in-demand nursing specialty.
Nurse Mandy Jack had the following to say about what being a psych nurse involves:
“It completely depends on where you work and who you are working under. If your personal philosophy of treating patients does not match the psychiatrist's approach you will hate your job.
As for the job itself, it’s a lot of talking and redirecting and manipulating. Yes. Manipulating the patients to do what you want them to do. It’s putting yourself in their shoes. It’s pushing boundaries. It’s looking someone in the eyes and saying, ‘Go ahead and try,’ while trying to look calm.
It’s being able to notice the smallest changes in how someone is acting. It’s listening to your gut. It’s protecting your coworkers like they are family. It’s blaming the disease, not the patient. It’s figuring out what part is disease, what part is personality and which part is just environmental. It’s self-reflection. It’s knowing what withdrawal looks like. It’s gaining trust.”
Psych nurse Linda Cline provides this perspective on working with younger patients:
“I worked with children and adolescents. I loved it! I worked well with them and set firm boundaries… I loved talking to them and helping to raise their self esteem. I loved helping them problem solve. I could go on and on. I loved it!”
“It is very different from any other type of nursing… Some patients are violent. Usually, the violence comes from fear. Many hear voices telling them horrendous things will happen to them and the staff will hurt them. We make sure we have enough staff to provide care without hurting them but realizing they are terrified. Medication, usually injected, will calm someone within an hour and the staff can talk with them…
Once they are comfortable with the nurse, they will reveal the source of their terror and you can work to quell it. They learn to trust you and you can then teach them skills to care for themselves, including taking their medications…
As the charge nurse, your demeanor sets the stage on the unit. If you are calm and relaxed, most likely your staff and your patients will be as well. If you are a nervous Nelly, expect a rough day as your staff and patients react to your anxiety.”
The consistent schedule associated with psych nursing is a perk for this nurse (Stoic-Nurse), who shared the following on Reddit:
“One thing I love about psych nursing is that there is a schedule. Everyone goes to breakfast at 8:15, anger group at 9am, lunch is at 12: 30, etc. You can plan your day based on where people will be.”
It’s also important to be aware of the mental toll this role can entail; some nurses advise the following:
“Emotional & mental work is much heavier than physical work. There is a ton of patient advocacy, a lot of "soft skills" use, you need very good boundaries and great, honest, communication skills.”
Behind-the-Scenes: A Day in the Life of a Psych Nurse
To get a glimpse of the day in the life of a psych nurse, check out the following video blogs by nurses who don’t hold back on all things psych nursing.
- A Day in the Life of a Night Shift Psych Nurse
- A Day in the Life of a Forensic Psych Nurse
- A Day in the Life of a Psych Nurse in the Adolescent Unit
- Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Psych Nurse
- Day in the Life of Medical School - Psychiatry Rotation
Highlights and Challenges of Psych Nursing
Being a psych nurse is a demanding role with highlights and challenges. Here are the ups and downs of this nursing specialty, according to those who work in psychiatric units:
- “My overall impression of those seven years of my life (1974–1981) was one of sadness. I quit because it was affecting me and I didn’t like where the darkness was taking me.” - Bruce Downing
- “It certainly has its sucky moments. It can be incredibly confronting and emotionally draining. Being yelled at and threatened is certainly not fun. And you need to grow a really thick skin fast. And you have to be able to enforce boundaries really well.” - r/StudentNurse
- “I used to work at a mental health facility for mentally ill and dangerous… The hours were horrible, mandatory overtime was very common, and it was dangerous. Multiple fights a day where nurses/security officers have to intervene.” - r/StudentNurse
- “Being a psychiatric nurse can be very fulfilling, many patients recognise when you are truly trying to do the best you can for them.” - Gloria Johnson
- You get to experience a wide array of different people in all kinds of situations, understand them, and expand your worldview.
- It is less physically demanding, and there are numerous opportunities for specialization and continued education. You can “learn clinical psychology practices, various therapies, assessments, conferences, harm reduction, safety training.”
Considering becoming a psych nurse? Check out Nursa’s comprehensive guide on psych nursing, which answers all the questions you might have about this specialty, including what is a psych unit in a hospital, how to become a psych nurse, and more.