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Australia's mental health nurses urged to 'understand and foster resilience'

Photo: Australia's mental health nurses urged to 'understand and foster resilience'
A CQUniversity Noosa academic has chosen the occasion of International Nurses' Day and Florence Nightingale's birthday to urge mental health nurses across our nation to understand and foster resilience.

Professor Margaret McAllister presented her provocative keynote address during the 10th Primary Mental Health Conference in Canberra, on 12 May.

Her paper stressed that the definition of resilience needed to be recast to focus on the social, as well as psychological aspects, that could foster change.

The CQUni academic explained that psychology has advanced understanding of ways to develop personal resilience. However, positive coping mechanisms may not be enough to resolve deep-seated social and structural problems.
"As we know, mental disorders are often exacerbated and maintained because of noxious social and cultural conditions.  Similarly, problems affecting mental health nursing are not resolved by thinking that all we have to do is toughen up as individuals.

"Nurses are often portrayed as resilient - surmounting enormous challenges with courage and grace. But they are also commonly framed around personal, and individual, capabilities – like their caring nature. Such depiction buys into a prevailing
concept of resilience as a psychological trait," Professor McAllister said.

"This notion is simplistic because nurses usually work in, and their effectiveness depends on, team work. Also, a narrow view of resilience obscures the structural factors that exist to impede nursing’s effectiveness, potential and positive identity.

Worryingly, a common solution put forward to resolving entrenched problems within nursing is to teach nurses how to become more resilient – how to toughen up."

Professor McAllister suggested it is important to look at the dark side of nursing, "that which makes us uncomfortable, and which raises issues about our past, or our culture, about which we might regret, feel guilty about, or vehemently oppose".

"Becoming more conscious of that which is hidden can actually be freeing. Becoming more aware of our faults, gives us capacity for change, for growth," she says.

The CQUni academic promoted the benefits of storytelling (across a range of genres) as a way to frame and explore issues confronting the profession.

She said that the 'lens of resilience', for mental health nurses, had three purposes.

"It can provide a focus with consumers to improve self-understanding or personal and social strengths can be harnessed and activated.

"It can be trained onto the community to assess strength, resources and willingness and agility to change and develop.

"And it  can be used amongst the nursing profession itself, to see that emotionally and socially there are things nurses can do to enjoy the work and respond proactively to workforce and social conditions that need reform."

Professor McAllister stressed that resilience was not an innate trait any more than the ability to care and be compassionate. It could be learned and developed.

"It also isn’t a treatment technique – when you have stressed nurses who are leaving, or skill mixes that are unsafe, the solution is not to teach nurses how to toughen up," she said.

"Resilient people, communities and organisations are needed. And I hope by now to have convinced you that a psychosocial lens will be of more use to us, than persisting with this individualistic approach that focuses on only the individual body or disordered part.

"I am not asking that we discard the benefits of this focused lens which informs us about genetic risks, individual experiences, biological remedies, and self-responsibility.

"But what I am saying is that if we shift the balance towards psychosocial and structural skills, we would help people get along better, feel and act connectedly; and see our role in working with society to build empathic, supportive services; to reduce violence, bullying, and suffering.

"As mental health nurses, when we face challenges we can get harder; we can fall to gooey pieces; or we can use the opportunity to make something new. Face the challenge, play the ball, demand social action."

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