Upskilling mental health nurses

3 August 2014

Addiction lecturer and mental health nurse Dr DARYLE DEERING says people affected by mental health and addiction issues need a response from compassionate and skilled nurses.

There has been significant progress made in combatting the stigma associated with the experience of mental health and addiction issues. A number of prominent New Zealanders have made their experiences visible, and in doing so, they have also provided hope for others. Despite this progress, there are many New Zealanders who can attest to the personal impact of the pervasive stigma associated with mental health and addiction issues and less than helpful responses when they have ‘screwed up’ the courage to seek help for themselves or for whānau and family members.

Reflecting on my experience over the past four years as president of Te Ao Māramatanga New Zealand College of Mental Health Nurses, I continue to feel extremely passionate about:

  1. The postgraduate certificate entry criteria to mental health nursing and the potential role of certification in providing professional recognition for mental health nurses who demonstrate that they meet the College practice standards;
  2. The College role in providing an opportunity for nurses who work in primary care settings to enhance their mental health and addiction-related skills in meeting the needs of their local communities or service populations.

While the undergraduate nursing education programme is rightly a comprehensive programme, similar to the undergraduate programmes of other professions such as psychology and medicine, an undergraduate programme is not sufficient to prepare nurses to work in the specialty of mental health and addiction. People whose lives are significantly affected by these issues have the right to receive assessments and interventions from practitioners with postgraduate, clinically-relevant education preparation. Furthermore, to work in more specialised areas such as addiction and to work with children and adolescents, further education and training is required.

The marked inequalities in our society have led to significant numbers of people struggling in their everyday lives. While for many, support from other citizens and social service agencies will be of considerable help, others need expert help with a multiple mental health, substance use, and other issues, which frequently become intertwined. It is in order to meet the needs of these people and their whānau and families that well-prepared mental health nurses and other specialist practitioners are required.

In addition, there is an increasing need for screening and early intervention to meet the needs of people with milder and less complex mental health and substance-related and/or behavioural addiction issues. Responding to these needs requires nurses working in primary care settings to feel confident and competent to ask “the questions” elicit the persons or family members concerns, provide information and/or opportunistic brief interventions in a motivational style, seek consultation as necessary, or actively refer to another practitioner or service that the nurse knows can provide the help required. The College Mental Health and Addiction in Primary Care Credential provides a vehicle for nurses working in primary care to enhance these skills.

In my view, it is the right of all New Zealanders whose lives are affected by mental health and/or substance use issues, including unborn children (e.g. foetal alcohol effects) to expect a compassionate and skilled nursing response. It is the responsibility of policy makers, funders, educators, and nursing leaders to ensure that all nurses have access to the knowledge and skills they require to meet the mental health and addiction related needs of their community and service populations.

Dr Daryle Deering is senior lecturer at the National Addiction Centre, University of Otago and president of Te Ao Māramatanga New Zealand College of Mental Health Nurses.