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In the press of caring for patients, family nurse practitioners (FNPs) must tend to a patient’s physical well-being and mental health. Caring for a patient’s mental status can be vital to meeting healthcare needs.

As primary care providers, FNPS play a significant role in tending to mental health concerns. The American Association of Nurse Practitioners (AANP) reflected that 88% of the nation’s NP workforce are certified in an area of primary care, with over 70% delivering primary care services, notes LaMicha M. Hogan, PhD, APRN, FNP-BC, associate dean/department chair for APRN Programs for the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing-Graduate Program.

In this article, we’ll offer ways to ensure you’re attending to your patient’s mental health needs and touch on how FNP programs should educate students about mental health.

Great Impact Though stigmatizing societal attitudes regarding mental healthcare have improved, a patient’s initial encounter with a healthcare provider will likely have the most significant impact on self-perception of a mental health complaint as well as willingness to seek continued treatment, notes Hogan.

Early detection and intervention lead to the best outcomes, in conjunction with a trusting, collaborative rapport between the patient and FNP to reduce stigma present with having a mental health condition, according to Hogan. FNPs must be aware that a patient’s mental health status has a greater impact on chronic physical health conditions if undiagnosed or left untreated, she notes.

It’s imperative for FNPs, especially those in primary care settings, to prioritize the screening of conditions such as depression and anxiety, notes Amanda Ringold, DNP, FNP-BC, CRNP, SANE-A, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing. “To ensure effective mental health assessments, FNPs must address and overcome organizational barriers, including time constraints, a lack of a universal screening policy, and providers’ feelings of inadequacy in conducting mental health screenings. FNPs are poised to take on leadership roles within clinical settings to address and mitigate these challenges,” she explains.

Screening Strategies

Various strategies exist for dealing with mental health during patient care visits. For instance, 

Ringold notes that not every screening needs to be done face-to-face with the FNP. Instead, screenings can be conducted with pen and paper in the waiting room or via an app before the appointment. She notes that other team members, including nurses or medical assistants, can be trained in administering the screenings.

Lisa Johnson, DrNP, CRNP, ACNP-BC, associate professor and DNP/NP Program Coordinator at Gwynedd Mercy University, agrees that patients can complete questionnaires in the waiting room or before the visit. However, “we have to be cautious not to fatigue patients with questionnaires and to ascertain their reading level and primary language prior to requesting a mental health assessment be completed by the patient,” she warns.

According to Ringold, the care setting and patient population should dictate the most appropriate screening tools. The most frequently used tools, she notes, include the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9), the Generalized Anxiety Disorder -7 (GAD-7), and the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT). When time is limited, notes Ringold, FNPs can use abbreviated versions of screenings such as the PHQ-2, a two-question alternative to the PHQ-9.

In an interview, Irene W. Bean, DNP, FNP/PMHNP-BC, FAAN, FAANP, FNAP, CEO of Serenity Health Care, P.C., and Tennessee State Rep for AANP, says to pay attention to a patient’s body language once in a patient encounter. Watch for poor eye contact or note whether a patient has been crying.

She says to pay attention to slurred speech and be aware of signs such as a patient who typically speaks loudly suddenly speaking in a whisper or a normally talkative patient now being reserved.

FNP Programs

Johnson says NP educational standards emphasize assessing mental health in varied patient populations. Healthcare providers and institutions of higher education need to focus on the cultural considerations of mental health disorders and further emphasize collaborative communication between primary care and mental health providers, she notes.

Hogan says clinical competencies are best attained via a competency-based educational model throughout the FNP curricula. Specialized courses on mental health, simulation training, interprofessional education, and clinical rotations in primary care settings can develop competence. She says that after graduation, FNPs should maintain continuing education specific to FNP’s scope of practice and evidence-based care for mental health concerns.

Ringold notes a growing trend of students at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing opting for dual FNP-PMHNP degrees.

Scope of Practice

While FNPs can treat mental health conditions such as basic anxiety and depression, they need to be mindful of their state’s scope of practice, says Bean. For patients with conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, you may be stepping outside your practice scope and may need to refer the patient to a specialist, Bean says

“One thing that I would stress, and I stress to my students, is that you want to protect your license. You want to ensure the patient is safe while protecting your license,” Bean says.

Calling on Compassion

When you realize your patient is anxious, depressed, or dealing with a mental health issue, “What you don’t want to do is rush that patient from that conversation,” says Bean. “You’re going to miss a lot of things when you rush patients who have a mental health crisis through your clinic,” Bean says. 

“You have to have compassion for patients dealing with a crisis. Their crisis may not be something you feel is a crisis, but to them, it’s everything. You can’t discount their feelings, and you can’t discount what you’re seeing in that patient.”

 

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