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Psychosocial care: what you need to know

by Golden Health Centers

Although nurses have informally practiced aspects of psychosocial care for centuries, it’s only relatively recently that the term has entered the healthcare lexicon and begun to be taught formally as part of nursing courses. This isn’t just the latest buzzword—it’s a useful framework that has shown significant benefits for patients and nurses alike. This article explains what psychosocial care is and how adopting it as a formal structure can help you to do a better job.

What is psychosocial care?

Nursing has always been about helping the whole person, not just treating a specific disease, but in the 21st century an increasing emphasis has been placed on the psychological needs of patients and those close to them. There has also been increased recognition of how poor health can impact the way an individual fits into society.

Psychosocial care seeks to address these issues through counselling, acceptance, confirmation, and friendship. It’s now taught on courses such as Baylor University’s online BSN programs, which are focused on enhancing existing skills and abilities through new methodologies so that a single year of study can transform the way you work. While you might feel as though you’ve already been doing some of these practices, focusing on them in this way enhances their effectiveness, makes it easier to measure outcomes (and therefore to refine your approach), and improves your ability to set boundaries so that you don’t inadvertently damage your own mental health.

Reducing the burden on patients

When they’ve received an unsettling diagnosis or suffered an accident that is going to affect the way they live, patients have a big psychological adjustment to make, and this can be complicated by any number of pre-existing issues. Providing counseling gives them the opportunity to talk these things through and helps them to process their altered circumstances.

Although it can take months or years for them to adjust fully, short-term help makes the experience less distressing overall, enables them to make practical decisions more effectively, and reduces the risk of damage to the relationships which are most important to them. In some cases, it’s helpful to offer counseling to loved ones as well. This is essential when the patient is a child because the parents will need to be able to feel emotionally capable of making decisions around consent, understand what the child is going through psychologically, and work out how to cope themselves.

Reducing pain and stress

Providing psychosocial support has been shown to reduce pain and stress in patients with chronic symptoms, and there is growing evidence that it may also be beneficial in short-term pain management. Critically, it can reduce the need for potentially addictive opioid treatment or other approaches to managing these symptoms that are not well tolerated by some patients. It helps patients to cope better with prolonged programs of chemotherapy and may therefore make it easier for them to choose the more grueling pursuit of a cure over palliative care in some cases. It has a clear positive effect on quality of life.

Empowering patients

When patients are less overwhelmed by the psychological impact of their symptoms, they are better able to make decisions. Improving their understanding of the healthcare issues that they need to make decisions about is also part of the psychosocial care process. Together with helping them to take control of their emotions and manage their fears, it works to restore their sense of agency, fending off damaging feelings of helplessness and the accompanying insecurity. Ideally, this will enable them to become partners in their healthcare journeys rather than just passive recipients of care.

Reducing loneliness

Loneliness has been established as a risk factor for all causes of mortality, and that doesn’t just apply to living alone. It can be a significant problem for patients whose experience of illness isolates them from their social contacts either directly (e.g. because they can’t get out and about) or indirectly (e.g. because others find the situation stressful, or they come to feel that they no longer have much in common with former friends).

Nurses can do a lot to help in these situations simply by offering friendship. By taking an interest and helping patients to maintain some sense of social connection, however slight, it’s possible to improve quality of life in the immediate term and help patients retain the skills necessary to rebuild their social lives in the long term.

Making patients feel valued

Patients struggling with illness or disabling injuries often experience feelings of worthlessness or worry about being a burden to others. Simple reassurance only goes so far, but when nurses take an interest in their lives, it’s much easier for patients to feel that they still have value. Conversation can be gently steered to help them reflect positively on the ways in which they contribute to the world, even if it’s simply by making their loved ones happy.

It’s important to recognize that patients vary tremendously in terms of their values and priorities. The key is to focus on what’s important to them, and accept the whole of who they are, so they can recognize that health problems don’t define them but are just one aspect of a larger identity.

Facilitating better support for nurses

Getting close to patients who are seriously ill or dying can take its toll on nurses, and it’s important to be aware of your own limits and needs. The psychosocial model also invites you to reflect on your own well-being and behave in a way that enables you to retain your resilience, for your own sake and so that you set an example for patients. Setting emotional boundaries helps you to protect yourself and assists patients to learn how to set boundaries and safely navigate conversations about their health with loved ones and others. It also helps you to be more aware of when you need assistance in order to cope.

Psychosocial care is a vital part of modern nursing practice and one with which it’s well worth taking the time to familiarize yourself.

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