Many of us may have prior experience of someone close to us dealing with their own psychiatric issues. Many of us may have had psychiatric issues ourselves before walking into this field. As a result, this may often be our first contact with psychiatry, psychiatric nursing, or the issues concerning mental health. Regardless of the prior exposure, it is now time to tuck this away for a while. It is time for learning new things or restructuring the old things as you become now that effective deliverer of care.
Yes, prior experience is something you can use, maybe to pull from later...emphasis later...in assisting a patient. However, your prior experience, in and of itself, is not enough to make you a psychiatric nurse...not even a good one. If that is all one has to fall back upon as a primary knowledge base, it may even hinder the new nurse from growing. In and of itself, it may possibly even render one ineffective. The issue of co-dependency comes to mind when I speak of this. So, at this time as a new nurse, it is time to set one's educational sights forward, not backward. Your learning is to become proactive, not reactive. The focus needs to be on you in the present, not your past exposure.
So, what should a student nurse or a new nurse in the field focus on? There is no pat answer for this. The answers are as sweeping as the field of psychiatric nursing is broad. However, how one is coming to be introduced into the field as a professional may provide a starting point. Are you a student? If you are a student, is this a field that you simply have an interest in or is it something you plan to enter? Or, are you here just for getting the grade and hope to get thru it in one piece? Are you a new nurse now entering the field? If so, your needs are similar but different. It doesn't really matter much if you are a brand spanking new nurse or a nurse with 15 years under your belt transferring from ICU to psych...this field is a new world with different expectations.
How am I entering this field?
So, the first step is coming to realize for yourself: how am I entering this field, what are my personal and learning needs, what do I want or need to accomplish, and what is at my disposal to accomplish this?
You are learning - Ask Questions
After coming to realizing our starting point, the next step is to give yourself a break. You are learning. Many, if not most psychiatric nurses that you will come in contact with, realize this about you and are either very glad to assist you or very supportive of you in your growth. As a learner, ask questions...ask many questions. Believe me, for the most part, psychiatric nurses truly don't mind. In fact, they often want you to ask questions. Asking questions gets you answers. I truly cannot emphasize this enough. Beware of the student or new nurse who thinks that they know all the answers already, keeps silent, and asks little. If this is you, you need to change this. You don't know all the answers. You're not fooling anyone.
Pick a mentor
The next thing is to pick a mentor on your floor/unit where you will be having your training. This could be the person assigned to you as a preceptor and/or someone else. Developing an attitude of hunger for this mentor's knowledge is beneficial. Observe this mentor in action....how he/she carries oneself with other colleagues and with patients. Pay attention to body language, eye contact, distance, and the use of voice and choice of words. Sometimes, the best examples are played right out there in front of us. Observe interaction...relating. Truly, interaction is but a dance. As a learner, you are paying attention to the steps and to the tempo. This will serve you well as you begin starting to observe patients...their dance...their tempo. It will also provide you later insight into how the milieu is coming along on the unit as your perspective broadens. It will also cue you in (when on your own) that intervention on your part (or by someone else) may be needed before a patient escalates. Deescalations are much easier when they are but a spark.
The next thing is to absorb as much literature that you can handle. This field has been around for quite some time...there is good material out there for you to fill in these learning gaps. I call these gaps the technical things...like the psychiatric meds, the DSM nomenclature, policies, how to run a group, writing psychiatric nursing notes, et cetera. Again, while filling in these gaps, ask questions. Take notes. Explore the allnurses psychiatric nursing forum and ask questions there. The more concise the question, the better the answer.
Have you noticed that I have said very little regarding patients and their issues at this point? There is a reason. When it comes to learning and starting off, you are only as good as your knowledge base. So, the focus needs to be on you. In psychiatric nursing, "not knowing" either will have you seeking further assistance or asking additional questions (the correct outcome) or will have you being detrimental to the patient (the incorrect outcome). When it comes to patients who may become violent or act out, "not knowing" can get you hurt (a very bad outcome). So, if you do not know...seek answers...ask...observe...get assistance... read... continue to learn as you grow into that professional psychiatric nurse. The process is never ending...even for the long term professional.
At this point in time, you are at ground zero. Observation is your tool. Asking questions is your guide. Obtaining a mentor (or several) will provide you the support. Remember, all psychiatric nurses started at ground zero. You are not the first. Your job is to learn. And believe it or not, your patients that you come in contact with realizing this too. And if they can give you a break, so can you.