Therapeutic relationships: Making space to practice in chaotic institutional environments

J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2020 Dec;27(6):689-698. doi: 10.1111/jpm.12620. Epub 2020 Feb 27.


WHAT IS KNOWN ABOUT THE SUBJECT?: While therapeutic relationships remain core to mental health nursing practice and patient recovery, increased managerialism and focus on risk has impacted nurses' therapeutic practice with patients. While there is anecdotal evidence of the impact there has been little research that demonstrates nurses experience of therapeutic engagement within the current context. WHAT THE PAPER ADDS TO EXISTING KNOWLEDGE?: The paper reports on qualitative research that highlights nurses' strong attempts to create the space for therapeutic engagement with clients. This research provides evidence of the constraints on practice imposed by new managerial processes and suggests potential means of responding to them. WHAT ARE THE IMPLICATIONS FOR PRACTICE?: Mental health nurses are committed to working therapeutically but struggle to balance this against new managerial demands imposed across many OECD countries. The New Zealand government has recently reported on positive changes to mental health provision but does not suggest changes to the structures that impede good practice. This research indicates that structural change is essential to therapeutic engagement. ABSTRACT: Introduction Increasing managerialism, driven in part by notions of risk, compromises the mental health nurses therapeutic engagement with clients potentially impacting their recovery. While the importance of therapeutic relationships in mental health recovery is acknowledged, there is little evidence about how managerial processes encroach on this relationship. Aim To explore mental health nurses experience of engaging in therapeutic relationships within the current practice environment. Method This paper utilized an interpretive phenomenological approach, using interviews with mental health nurses. Results Managerial processes significantly impacted the practice of nurses who struggled to make space for therapeutic relationships within a chaotic milieu. The chaos is associated with increasing austerity within the health system; this has resulted in high staff turnover and staff shortages. Discussion Managerial demands dominate the practice field at the expense of therapeutic engagement between nurses and clients ultimately affecting client recovery. While nurses' integrity means they desperately try to make space for the therapeutic work, they often become burnt out and disheartened. Implications for practice While nurses are often blamed for failures in the system, the structures that disable nurses in their attempts to practice therapeutically require urgent responses, strengthening professional organizations and engaging in democratic partnerships with consumer groups.

Keywords: managerialism; mental health nursing; phenomenology; therapeutic relationships.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Mental Health Services*
  • New Zealand
  • Nurse-Patient Relations*
  • Organizational Culture*
  • Psychiatric Nursing*
  • Qualitative Research