Prominent theories in mental health nursing

In a world that oftentimes seems to become less unified as time passes, there are still a few things that transcend societal and cultural bounds. One of the most pressing of these is mental illness. In many places around the world, the stigma surrounding mental illness is slowly decreasing. This has allowed more people than ever before to reach out for help. Not only does this lead to a healthier, happier world, but it also creates a need for skilled specialists ready and able to provide expert care to patients struggling with mental health concerns. Mental health nursing is a quickly growing field of nursing focused on promoting and maintaining the mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing of patients experiencing mental health challenges.

In order to provide the best care possible, mental health nurses, also known as psychiatric nurses or psychiatric-mental health nurses, must possess extensive knowledge of psychiatric and psychological theories and understandings. This article will explore some of the most well-known of these theories, as well as a bit more background into mental health nursing.

What is mental health nursing?

To put it simply, mental health nurses help patients struggling with mental health concerns. Such a concise description can’t come close to illustrating the varied roles and responsibilities these professionals play, nor does it convey the extensive education and experience necessary to excel in the field. Mental health nurses are responsible for the following:

  • Assessment and diagnosis
  • Treatment planning and implementation
  • Medication management
  • Psychoeducation
  • Support and advocacy
  • Crisis intervention
  • Collaboration and coordination

In order to better provide comprehensive care to their patients, many mental health nurses choose to pursue an advanced nurse practitioner degree. Earning a mental health nurse practitioner degree from a reputable educational institution such as Baylor University provides nurses with the foundational knowledge needed to successfully assess, diagnose and treat even uncommon mental health issues. With 100% online coursework, this CCNE-accredited degree program explores the conceptual, theoretical and clinical models of mental health care.

While working towards a degree, there are a few prominent mental health theories to study.

Biological theory

Biological theory focuses on the biological factors that impact mental health and potentially lead to mental illness. It explores the role that neurochemistry, genetics and brain structure have in mental disorders and places emphasis on medication and other biological interventions to address mental health concerns. This contrasts some of the theories we look at below that emphasize the importance of behavior modification rather than medication alone.

Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theory is based on the theories of Sigmund Freud and explores the idea that unconscious processes and latent thoughts and beliefs impact an individual’s feelings, behaviors and conscious thoughts. Much of this theory is rooted in the influence of early childhood experiences and unresolved conflicts or defense mechanisms. This isn’t the most common or popular model used in mental health nursing, but it is still an active theory that you might encounter. If you are studying to be a mental health nurse, you will almost certainly learn about it in more depth.

Cognitive theory

Cognitive theory is one of the most well-known theories of contemporary psychology. It focuses on how your beliefs, thoughts and interpretations of the world around you influence your behaviors and emotions. The role that these cognitive processes have on mental health and illness is closely explored in cognitive theory, with mental health nurses and other providers working to identify and modify negative or distorted thought patterns. The idea is that by identifying these major issues and resolving them, psychological distress naturally decreases.

Behavioral theory

Behavioral theory explores the influence of learning and conditioning on action. More specifically, it focuses on how past experiences, environmental factors and reinforcements shape present and future behavior. Examples of behavioral approaches in mental health nursing include using behavior modification techniques, such as positive reinforcement, to promote good habits that improve mental health and reduce maladaptive behaviors, which decrease mental health.

Humanistic theory

Humanistic theory recognizes the importance of self-actualization, individual growth and personal choice on your mental health. The idea is that humans naturally work to fulfill their unique potential and experience increased psychological distress when something gets in the way of that growth. Using humanistic theory, mental health providers help promote self-awareness and self-acceptance along with empathy and genuineness as a way to improve overall mental wellbeing.

Social theory

Social theory considers the big picture when it comes to mental health. It asserts that human beings are products of their environments and that environmental, cultural and social factors naturally impact wellness. Using social theory, mental health providers examine how societal constructs, social support networks and cultural norms influence mental health.

Final thoughts

It should be noted that the above theories are not mutually exclusive. Many providers mix elements from multiple theories to develop the best treatment for patients. Using a base of cognitive theory with elements of behavioral theory, for example, is a popular combination that is often highly effective at intervening in mental health problems. Different providers will have differing preferences about the theories they espouse, and not all of them will work for all patients. It is important to have flexibility as a provider and to remember that you must adapt to your patients’ unique needs, not the other way around.

What do you think about the theories we explore in this article? Caring for mental health, whether you are looking after your own or are more focused on someone else’s, can be complicated, but having a solid foundation of effective theories can make treatment a bit easier. Don’t forget to do your own research to see what else is out there!

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