We live in an age of healthcare shortages. For some people, it’s a concept they hear about on the news more than one that they observe in real life. But for those living in impacted communities, it can literally be the difference between life and death.
Comprehensive mental health coverage isn’t as hotly discussed as say, ER staffing shortages, but it is a significant issue. Many parts of the country simply don’t have enough mental health professionals to meet their needs.
Gaps in care can have a significant impact on the people who need help. In this article, we take a look at how nurse practitioners can play a vital role in supporting patients’ mental well-being. Read on to learn more.
What are Nurse Practitioners?
Most literally, nurse practitioners are nurses with a graduate degree that grants them the title of “Practitioner.” From the point that an NP enrolls in undergraduate studies, to the moment they graduate with their ultimate degree, seven years will usually have passed.
It takes a lot of schooling to become an NP, but that time pays off, equipping them with the knowledge they need to function at some of the highest levels of health care.
From a layperson’s perspective, you can think of an NP as a cross between a nurse and a general practitioner. While they do not have the title of “doctor,” they can do many of the same things. This includes patient consultations, diagnoses work, filling out prescriptions, and developing treatment plans.
Like doctors, NPs can also specialize. Some practice family medicine. Others may work on neonatal floors or pediatric wings. Or, they might specialize in mental health services.
NPs working with patients suffering from mental health issues are able to help their patients in a wide range of different ways. Below, we describe the impact that psychiatric NPs have on the people that they help.
Assess and Diagnose
Care usually begins with a comprehensive assessment of what the patient is going through. This will usually take place via a direct interaction between the patient and the NP, but can also involve input from family members depending on the specifics of the situation.
Once the NP has assessed their patient’s symptoms, they are able to make an official diagnosis the same way a doctor would.
NPs are also able to write prescriptions for patients who need them. Once the patient has received the medication that they need, the NP may also be involved in education, helping them understand how and when to take the medicine that they need.
Psychotherapy, known colloquially as “talk therapy” is another important service that NPs can provide their patients. Talk therapy in its most basic form involves conversations between the patient and the mental health professional.
The goal of talk therapy is usually to help the patient gain clarity on whatever mental health challenges they might be experiencing while learning the skills required to manage those symptoms better in day-to-day life.
Some mental health conditions cannot be managed by the impacted individual alone. Often, support from family is required to successfully give the patient the help they need. In these situations, the NP will also work directly with their patient’s family members and caregivers to help them better understand what they should expect and how they should respond to the challenges that their loved one faces.
Educational outreach is important in helping to make sure that the tools and coping mechanisms that NPs develop with their patients are actually carried out in real life.
Crisis Intervention and Case Management
NPs are often called in to de-escalate mental health-related crises. Once the crisis situation has been defused, they may also be involved in long-term case management. This involves working with the patient and their family in much the same way that a social worker might, helping to ensure that they have everything they need to successfully manage their mental health difficulties.
The Big But
Unfortunately, there are limitations to what nurse practitioners can do in the world of mental health care. Most of these limitations are geographically imposed. NP regulations are regionally specific. While some states will allow a nurse practitioner to handle all of the above-stated points independently, some will mandate direct supervision from a medical doctor.
Naturally, said supervision has pros and cons. On the one hand, it does ensure that an extra set of eyes are being applied to the case. A diversity of perspectives can be very valuable in healthcare, helping to ensure that all avenues of treatment are explored.
On the other hand, it also delays care. One of the big benefits that nurse practitioners have for the healthcare system is that they can fill in the gaps and make care more accessible. Excessive oversite largely negates that benefit.
If you are interested in becoming a nurse practitioner, first read up on local laws. You may find that you will need to consider operating in a different state if you wish to enjoy full autonomy.