To the Nurse Who Labeled a Patient by Their Mental Illness


As a nurse, I am expected to treat every patient with compassion, empathy, understanding and provide exemplary care. I am not to judge or refer to a patient as their condition or illness. However, even though I am working in a profession that has a code of conduct to adhere to, it is sometimes not followed.

When I was a student nurse, I was on a clinical rotation in a medical ward at one of the largest hospitals in Washington. Before every shift, we would have handover in the staff room, where the charge nurse would go over every patient on the ward. I was rostered on an early morning shift and a new patient had come in overnight. Normally, you address the patient as “Mr. or Mrs. X in room one,” then state their current condition, treatments and plan. Instead of performing handover like she should have, her exact words were, “We have a new patient. The schizophrenic in room one.” She then carried on the rest of the handover like normaI, addressing each patient using their name.

I was so dumbfounded at how she referred to the new patient in room one that I couldn’t concentrate or listen to the rest of the handover. How could a clinical nurse, with years of experience and with students present, refer to a patient as their diagnosis? Particularly their mental illness, which was totally irrelevant because they were on the medical ward. All she needed to tell us was the patient’s current physical condition.

I was assigned to this patient with my buddy nurse for the duration of my shift that day. I was told not to talk to the patient when I went to do routine observations and meds. This went against everything I had not only been taught, but believed in as a human being. I make a point of always introducing myself to patients, explaining what I am going to do, even though they already know, because it is my duty to keep them informed and make them feel comfortable. It is the only way of gaining rapport with them.

I went to do my first set of observations on the patient in room one who I was told not to talk to. I walked in, introduced myself, told him I was going to take his blood pressure and temperature and asked him how he was doing. He was the loveliest man I had looked after during my rotation at this hospital so far. Since it was a quiet day, I was afforded the luxury of being able to spend a little bit more time with patients while doing observations. After I took his blood pressure, he started to talk and ask me questions about how I was enjoying nursing school and what area I wanted to specialize in. He told me he used to be a teacher up north and how he loved it so much, but unfortunately, had to resign when he got sick. He opened up to me and we had a great conversation. The rapport was built instantly.

To judge and refer to a patient by their diagnosis or condition is not only wrong, it goes against everything nursing stands for. To be told not to talk to a patient due to their mental illness, when they were on the ward for a medical issue, is disgusting to me, especially as a student. Luckily, I was a mature student with life experience and a history of mental illness. If I had been straight out of high school and had no exposure to mental illness or spent time in a hospital before, I doubt I would have had the same kind of empathy, compassion and understanding.

I will never forget this incident. It has shown me what not to do, how not to act and just how wrong nursing can be sometimes. I will never forget this patient, who was so lovely and open, for trusting me enough to tell me his story.

The nursing profession is based on caring. Why then, is there so much stigma surrounding mental illness? Regardless of personal views, the duty of a nurse is to care for someone, not to contribute to the stigma by referring to patients as their mental illness rather than their name. It is time for healthcare professionals to wake up and realize their own views might be harmful to the care patients receive. Their views can also sometimes add to the reason why disclosing your mental health status as a healthcare professional is so difficult.

Nurse like you mean it. Nurse with your head and care with your heart. Show compassion. And if you can’t do any of these, then why are you in the profession to begin with?

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Thinkstock photo via monkeybusinessimage


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