Original Research

'When you're it': a qualitative study exploring the rural nurse experience of managing acute mental health presentations


name here
Hannah Beks1
MPH, Associate Research Fellow *

Christopher Healey2 GradCertMH, Senior Research Fellow

Kate G Schlicht3 MBehavSc, Senior Research Fellow


1, 2, 3 Deakin Rural Health, Deakin University, Princes Highway, Warrnambool, Vic, 3280

ACCEPTED: 20 March 2018

early abstract:

Introduction: A higher proportion of chronic mental illness is reported for populations residing in Inner and Outer Regional (IOR) areas when compared to major cities in Australia. Conversely, fewer mental health professionals work in IOR areas when compared to major cities indicating poorer access to services for rural populations. Rural emergency departments (EDs) and urgent care centres (UCCs) deliver a broad range of services. Often they are the first point of care for consumers experiencing acute mental health issues. Rural nurses working in EDs and UCCs require a diverse clinical skill set to manage complex presentations, often with limited support and resources. Developments in telehealth services have reportedly improved access for rural consumers. It is known that nurses report a lack of skills and confidence when managing mental health presentations. Despite these challenges, there is little documented regarding the experience of generalist nurses managing acute mental health presentations in rural hospitals that have limited support of community mental health teams and no onsite inpatient mental health facilities.

Methods: A qualitative study was conducted to explore the experience of rural nurses in managing acute mental health presentations within an emergency context. An interview guidedeveloped from the literature was used to explore issues of experience, safety, knowledge and clinical confidence. Thirteen rural generalist nurses from one rural emergency department and two rural urgent care centres located in South West Victoria participated in a semi-structured interview. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcriptions were thematically analysed by applying an inductive descriptive approach.

Results: The majority of participants were experienced generalist registered nurses with no formal qualifications in mental health. Two participants had some clinical experience in mental health and drug and alcohol.Themes elicited from data analysis and discussion between the researchers were; (1) we are the frontline, (2) doing our best to provide care, (3) complexities of navigating the system, and (4) thinking about change. Findings indicated that rural generalist nurses deliver the majority of care to mental health consumers in EDs and UCCs. Local mental health clinicians and emergency service providers offer limited support, with a reliance on telephone triage for after-hour’s assessment. Multiple challenges were cited including co-ordinating the transfer of consumers to inpatient facilities and feeling inadequately supported. Irrespective of these challenges, nurses reported delivering the best possible care to consumers despite reporting a lack of knowledge and skills. Recommendations for improving the delivery of care included increasing access to emergency mental health training and receiving more support from local mental health teams. The need for more rural mental health facilities was also discussed.

Conclusions: The findings from this study suggest generalist nurses are the frontline providers of care for mental health consumers in rural EDs and UCCs. Nurses feel ill-equipped for assessing and managing mental health presentations, relying heavily on local mental health teams and telephone triage who provide limited onsite support. The need to support nurses through training and mentoring relationships with community mental health teams is highlighted by this study in conjunction with improving the delivery of mental health services in rural areas.