Help! I’m Not a Mental Health Nurse – Part IV: My Patient is Not Eating or Sleeping

frowning doctor holding a stethoscope and listens to her thoughtCarrie is passing medications for the morning pill line in a large medium security state prison. One of the inmates shuffles to the window looking tired and ill. She asks the inmate “How are you doing?” as she prepares his prescribed medication and he says he can’t eat or sleep since he got here 3 weeks ago because the others on the unit are so noisy and the food is terrible. Carrie knows both those things to be true but she is concerned about how ill this patient is looking and schedules him for Mental Health Clinic later that afternoon. After completing pill line she lets the mental health nurse know that she is concerned about this patient’s mental state and thinks he should be evaluated for a medical or mental health condition that might be causing his symptoms.

Being incarcerated is a downer in and of itself, but Carrie is wise to have this patient evaluated for something more. There are medical conditions that can lead to lack of appetite and insomnia that need ruled out. In addition, this patient might have a mood disorder.

Mood disorders are alterations in emotions that are expressed as depression, mania or both. They interfere with a person’s life, troubling him or her with severe long-term sadness, agitation, or elation. The accompanying guilt, anger, self-doubt leads to altered life activities and relationships. The primary mood disorders are bipolar disorder and depression.

Few nurses are surprised to find so many incarcerated patients struggling with depression. This mental health diagnosis is common in the general patient population but even more so in the inmate population with 20-30% reporting symptoms of major depression according to a Bureau of Justice report. Like depression, bipolar disorder is common among the inmate patient population with that same report indicating that more than half of interviewed inmates reported symptoms of mania in the last year. So, if you work behind bars, it is likely that you will frequently deal with patients showing symptoms of or being in active treatment for a mood disorder.

Rule Out Medical Conditions First

A constant theme in dealing with mental health disorders is to rule out a medical cause for the symptoms. One study of admissions to a VA psychiatric unit found that about 3% of admissions were incorrect diagnoses of symptoms as mental illness that was actually caused by a medical condition. The top misdiagnosed medical condition in this study was hyperglycemia/diabetes, however many other medical conditions can cause depression-like symptoms such as hypothyroidism, liver disease, and anemia. This study also found that these misdiagnoses had incomplete medical histories. It is especially easy to jump right to a mental illness diagnosis if the patient already has a past history of psychiatric care. Correctional nurses can assist with the accurate diagnosis of a condition by obtaining a full medical history along with thorough documentation of subjective and objective assessment findings.

Rule Out Self-Harm

Another constant theme in dealing with mental health disorders is to consider the likelihood of patient self-harm. Suicide ideations should be considered when a mood disorder is being evaluated. In fact, depression in implicated in more suicides behind bars than any other mental health condition.

Is it Depression or Bipolar?

If your patient presents with depression symptoms, it could also be the down side of a bipolar disorder. With this condition, the patient has excessive mood swings between periods of high activity, racing thoughts, and poor impulse control (mania) and periods of intense feelings of loss and hopelessness (depression). It is important, then, to ask a potentially depressed patient about past seasons of manic activity. For example, any of the following:

  • Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity
  • Decreased need for sleep
  • More talkative than usual or pressure to keep talking
  • Racing thoughts
  • Attention easily drawn to unimportant or irrelevant external stimuli
  • Excessive activity such as unrestrained buying sprees, gambling, or foolish investments

Anticipate Treatment Options

Effective treatment for mood disorders combines medication and therapy to reduce symptoms and develop responses to the condition that will return the patient to a normal level of function. Here is a handy guide to various mental health medications from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Medication. Antidepressants are likely to be prescribed for depression while mood stabilizers are initiated for those with a bipolar condition.      

Antidepressants.The most common anti-depressant medication categories are tricyclic (TCAs), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs).  Each have a specific side effect profile but here are common ones for all classes:

  • Slow start: Most antidepressants have a slow start up for symptom relief – up to 4 weeks. Counsel patients to persevere through the side effects for depression relief. If there is no response in a month, a medication change may be warranted.
  • Dry mouth: Make sure the patient has access to liquids
  • Sedation: If sedation is an issue, consider moving the medication to the last dose of the day. SSRIs and SRIs can cause insomnia. In this case, consider moving the medication to the morning dose.
  • Nausea: Try to provide medication near meal time if this is an issue.
  • Discontinuation syndrome : The abrupt discontinuation of most antidepressants can lead to dizziness, lethargy, headache, and nausea. Therefore, there should be adequate bridging of antidepressants at intake and patients new to these medications need instruction on the importance of therapy continuation.

Mood Stabilizers. Lithium is still the most popular mood stabilizing medication for a bipolar disorder, although others in use include atypical antipsychotics such as Olanzapine (Zyprexa), Aripiprazole (Abilify), and Risperidone (Risperdal).  Lithium toxicity is a real issue for these patients and can be difficult to manage in a jail or prison. Lithium levels should be closely monitored with at least weekly laboratory work. The medication should be held and the provider contacted for levels of 1.5 mEq/L or above. At these levels the following symptoms may be noted:

  • Blurred vision
  • Ringing ears
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe diarrhea
  • Mental confusion

Lithium levels of 3.5 can lead to seizures, coma, and cardiovascular collapse so monitoring lithium levels is vital for patient safety.


Group and cognitive therapy can be helpful for patients with a mood disorder.  Group therapy can provide a supportive environment to gain perspective on the condition while cognitive therapy can help a patient control the thought distortions and expectations that potentiate disordered moods.

The inmate Carrie was concerned about did have an elevated blood glucose and is being worked up for Type II Diabetes. He was evaluated for suicide potential and obtained a low score on the screening. A mood disorder was ruled out by the psychiatrist at his monthly clinic and he was entered into an inmate diabetes support group that was being piloted in the facility.

How do you deal with mood disorders like depression and bipolar disorder in your setting? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

Photo credit: © vladimirfloyd –

Correctional Nursing From Within (podcast)


cnt-podcast_cover_art-1400x1400Elizabeth Scala, a registered nurse and author of the book “Nursing From Within: A Fresh Alternative to Putting Out Fires and Self-Care Workarounds”, talks with Lorry about the challenges of maintaining a positive mental perspective in nursing. Elizabeth is a former psychiatric nurse who worked on one of the most acute inpatient units in the state of Maryland before starting her work as a keynote speaker and Reiki Master Teacher. She talks about the principles from her book and how they  might apply to correctional nursing practice.

A key concept for a fulfilling nursing career is to run toward your true heart’s desire and ideal work setting rather than away from what you don’t want. Listen to this podcast episode to revitalize your correctional nursing practice in the New Year. Think about connecting with your inner nurse this year – the reasons you went into nursing in the first place, who you are, and what you enjoy about nursing.

In the News

We are all about getting in shape in the New Year and so we have a couple studies here looking at the benefit of exercise. Although exercise programs can be difficult to arrange behind bars, maybe you can develop some options for your patients this year.

Exercise Helps Menopause Symptoms and Quality of Life

Researchers in Finland looked into the benefits of exercise for managing menopause symptoms and quality of life. They surveyed 2606 women about exercise habits and their self-perceived health. Less active women had higher scores for anxiety and depression while those more active reported greater self-perceived health and less hot flashes. Although these correlations are significant, the increased activity may not be the cause of the improved health but the result of it. Still, there is mounting evidence that moderate activity (2.5 hours per week) has health benefits and moderates menopause symptoms.

Arthritis: Self-directed Exercise Program Shows Benefits

A self-directed exercise program for those with arthritis was the intervention in another study on exercise and health published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Exercise has been found to be of benefit to those with arthritis but most do not exercise as they should. One reason is due to accessability of exercise classes such as those recommended by the CDC. To combat this difficulty, a self-directed program called The First Step to Active Health created by the American College of Sports Medicine was provided to around 200 participants who were directed to follow the program at their own pace. They were provided with arthritis-specific recommendations, logs for reporting progress to the study coordinator and an expectations calendar. After 12 weeks participants were found to have improvement in strength, functional exercise capacity, flexibility, pain, fatigue, and stiffness. What I like about this program is it looks adaptable to the limitations of an incarceration environment. I could not find where it has been used in a prison setting but would love to try it. Let me know if you are interested in trying this program for your arthritic patients.

Influenza Hospitalizing Twice as Many as Last Year

The CDC is reporting a heavy flu season this year with hospitalizations more than double that of a year ago. They think this is due to the principal virus strain A(H3N2) and that the strain circulating is mutated from the strain used to create the current vaccine, making it less effective.

What are you doing in your facility to reduce infection spread? Are you limiting visitors, increasing hygiene, monitoring staff illness? Share your actions in the comments section of this post.

Help! I’m Not a Mental Health Nurse! Part III – My Patient is Lying and Manipulative

stressPersonality is the emotional and behavioral characteristics that make up a person. Personality traits are said to be present at birth or develop early in life. Personality influences the way we see and relate to the world. Correctional patients often have disordered personalities that have led to criminality and incarceration. Although there are many forms of personality disorders such as paranoid, narcissistic, and obsessive-compulsive, the most common forms in the correctional patient populations are antisocial personality disorders. Prisoners are ten times as likely to have an antisocial personality disorder as the general population. So, correctional nurses need to understand how to recognize and respond to these conditions. Consider this patient situation:

Lynn is a new nurse in a medium security state prison. One morning on treatment rounds in one of the housing units she gets distracted while George is using the nail clippers. Clippers are available for use by inmates in the presence of a nurse. When she returns her attention to George the clippers are nowhere to be found and George responds “What clippers? You must have left them somewhere.” He smiles charmingly at Lynn as she frantically searches for the missing implement. Although afraid of losing her job for carelessness, Lynn reports the situation to the housing officer who initiates a lock down and cell search. The clippers are found in George’s shoe and he is placed in administrative segregation. Later it is discovered that George owed another inmate a large gambling debt and wanted moved out of general population for protection.

Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD)

Antisocial personality disorders involve characteristics of social irresponsibility, exploitation of others, and lack of guilt or shame in these behaviors. These traits make ASPD patients dangerous to the emotional and psychological well-being of nurses who care for them.

What to Look For

Here is a list of common ASPD characteristics. How many of them describe patients arriving at your sick call or medication line?

  • Superficial charm
  • Self-centered & self-important
  • Need for stimulation & prone to boredom
  • Deceptive behavior & lying
  • Conning & manipulative
  • Little remorse or guilt
  • Shallow emotional response
  • Callous with a lack of empathy
  • Living off others or predatory attitude
  • Poor self-control
  • Promiscuous sexual behavior
  • Early behavioral problems
  • Lack of realistic long term goals
  • Impulsive lifestyle
  • Irresponsible behavior
  • Blaming others for their actions
  • Short term relationships

George demonstrated several of these characteristics in the situation with Lynn. He took advantage of her and felt no shame or guilt about it. He was superficially charming while being deceptive and lying about the situation.

A patient with antisocial personality disorder, then, is manipulative, irresponsible, deceitful, and guiltless. Nurses must be careful to protect themselves while setting clear behavioral boundaries for the nurse-patient relationship.

Protect Yourself from Manipulation

Unless you are working the mental health side, your job is not to ‘treat’ the antisocial behavior, but to be aware of it and protect yourself. These patients will use every interaction to their advantage. They are astute at discerning another person’s vulnerabilities and they prey on people who are hurting. Staff members who are lonely, insecure, or self-involved are good candidates for the manipulation of an inmate with an antisocial personality disorder. Nursing careers have ended when nurses have been drawn into sexual relationships or nefarious activities such as smuggling contraband or diverting narcotics for these individuals. Guard yourself. Know the characteristics. Keep yourself and your teammates accountable to stop potential issues before they move to a dangerous level.

Protect yourself from manipulation by treating all inmate-patients with consistant professional behavior and demeanor. Follow all security rules of conduct. Here are a few tips.

  • Don’t get personal. If an inmate comments about your hair or your figure, call them on it. If the comments continue, report them.
  • Do not perform even the smallest ‘extra’ activity for an inmate. That cotton ball or paperclip is the first step down a slippery slope.
  • Treat all inmates with equal respect and professional distance. Do not show any favoritism and do not allow any in return.
  • If you think you may have already been compromised, report it immediately to your supervisor and take actions to halt the progression. This may include reassignment to another care unit to break the connection.

Control the Situation

When working with ASPD patients it is important to maintain control of the situation.

  • Keep your distance: A somewhat detached therapeutic stance will help establish the professional nature of the interaction. This patient will not appropriately respond to empathy or compassion.
  • Keep control of the relationship: Set clear limits about your availability, frequency of encounters, and appropriate patient behavior during medical visits.
  • Keep your cool: Monitor your own feelings when entering into a patient encounter with an ASPD patient. Be mindful of words and actions. For example, avoid responding in kind to verbal attacks or manipulation.

Establish Behavior Accountability

All patients, but those with ASPD in particular, need to be held accountable for their behavior. While it is difficult to maintain positive regard for a patient who is deceitful or manipulative, it can be done. Here are some ways to remain therapeutic in patient encounters with ASPD patients.

  • Maintain an attitude that projects that it is not the patient but the patient’s behavior that is unacceptable.
  • When the patient exhibits unacceptable behavior, identify it as such and redirect the patient to appropriate behavior.
  • Do not attempt to convince the patient to do the right thing. Instead of saying “You should” or “You shouldn’t”, say “You are expected to”. This establishes normative behavior and depersonalizes required actions.

Interacting with patients who have ASPD can be the most frustrating part of your correctional nursing practice. However, with mindfulness toward self-protection and behavioral boundary setting, you can feel confident that you have done your best to provide quality healthcare in a difficult situation.

Have you struggled with a difficult patient like Lynn’s? Share your experience in the comments section of this post.

Photo credit: © © crystal kirk –

Help! I’m Not a Mental Health Nurse! Part II: My Patient is Hearing Voices

crazy doctorPsychotic patients have lost touch with reality and have unusual thought disturbances such as hallucinations and delusions. The most common psychotic disorder is schizophrenia, but patients can manifest any variety of psychotic symptoms without having this diagnosis. The Bureau of Justice reports that 15% of those in prison and 24% of those in jail reported having thought disturbances such as hallucinations or delusions. So, correctional nurses are likely to provide nursing care to psychotic patients. Consider this scenario:

Melinda is conducting nursing sick call in a local jail. Her next patient submitted a slip indicating right ankle pain. She interviews the patient; asking about the initiation, duration, and quality of the pain while examining the patient’s ankle. The patient explains that he hears voices at night talking about the tracking device implanted in his ankle. When it is turned on he gets a sharp pain that lasts for about 20 minutes. He knows that his movements are being tracked by the government. This patient has been in the jail for 5 days. The initial screening form only indicates that the patient is not suicidal and has no history of medical or mental health treatment.

Auditory hallucinations are one of the most common types of psychiatric symptoms. Most often these false perceptions manifest as voices but they can also be clicks, music, or other sounds. Like this patient’s presentation, psychotic disorders can include both hallucinations and delusions. A delusion involves a false personal belief that the patient continues to believe even after proof to the contrary. Here is a short list of common delusion types:

  • Control: Belief that objects or persons have control over him. This patient has a control delusion.
  • Grandeur: An exaggerated sense of importance or power. This delusion can be combined with religiosity. (“I am Jesus Christ”).
  • Persecution: Belief that others intend the patient harm. This patient also expresses a persecution-type delusion.
  • Reference: Irrational belief that all objects and actions refer to the patient. “All the articles in this magazine are talking about me in code.”
  • Somatic: Delusions based on body function. A 65 year old woman saying “I know I am pregnant even though the Dr. says I am not.”

Labeling the delusion, however, is not as important as accurately describing what the patient is hearing and experiencing.

An earlier post discussed ruling out medical conditions that might cause psychiatric symptoms – particularly delirium. Melinda plans to discuss this with the on-call physician once she has gathered all the data. She knows this patient will likely need a referral to a mental health professional. The mental health nurse practitioner sees patients two afternoons a week. She won’t be in until tomorrow afternoon, though, so what should Melinda do to help this patient right now?

Subjective and Objective Findings

Melinda still needs to perform a physical assessment and document subjective and objective findings. Although it is unlikely that the patient has a tracking device implanted in his ankle, he may actually be feeling pain and may have an injury.  Always fully evaluate a patient concern.

In addition, exposure to medications or drugs and medical conditions such as hepatic disease or electrolyte imbalance can cause psychotic symptoms. There is little known about this patient’s history. Melinda may be able to obtain helpful background information from the patient or, if available, the patient’s family.

Determine Harm to Self or Others

When a patient reports hearing voices, the underlying cause can be variable: auditory hallucinations, thoughts characterized erroneously as “voices,” or an indicator of malingering. Regardless, if a patient reports hearing voices, it is important to fully evaluate how this might affect the patient’s safety and the safety of those around him. Ask the patient what the voices are saying and attempt to get a full range of the content. If there is any indication that the voices instruct the patient to harm himself, perform a full suicide evaluation. If the voices instruct the patient to harm others the patient needs to be isolated from other inmates until there is a full mental health evaluation and therapy is active.

General Tips for Working with Psychotic Patients

It can be challenging to handle a patient interaction with someone who is not in touch with reality. There are a few things that Melinda was keeping in mind when communicating with this patient.

  • Avoid touching the patient without warning. Although we avoid touching anyway in corrections, touch happens during assessment and vital sign readings.
  • Maintain an attitude of acceptance to encourage the patient to fully share the delusion or hallucination.
  • Do not reinforce the hallucination. For example, refer to an auditory hallucination as ‘the voices’ rather than ‘they’.
  • If appropriate, as when a patient is hearing the hallucination in your presence, respond truthfully in an affirming tone. Such as “Even though the voices are real to you, I do not hear them.”
  • Do not argue or deny a false belief. Instead, present a ‘reasonable doubt’ position such as “I understand that you believe this, but I am personally having a hard time accepting it.”
  • Avoid laughing, whispering, or talking quietly to other staff around the patient.
  • Maintain an assertive, matter-of-fact, and genuine approach.

Therapy Options

Once Melinda fully evaluated the patient she contacted his mother who was indicated on the intake form as an emergency contact. With the patient’s permission, she asked his mother about his prior medical history and discovered that the patient had, indeed, been under psychiatric care in the past and had been taking Risperdal (risperidone). The patient had left home several months ago and his mother was no longer able to encourage compliance.

Armed with this information, the on-call provider was contacted and an order was obtained for this medication. Risperidone is an atypical antipsychotic agent (also called second generation) often prescribed for schizophrenia. Other drugs in this class include Clozapine (Clozaril), Olanzapine (Zyprexa, and Quetiapine (Seraquel).

Medication is not the total answer for a psychotic condition and this patient will likely need some type of therapy such as behavioral therapy, group therapy, or individual psychotherapy. Unfortunately, many settings like Melinda’s have limited resources for these mental health services.

Have you had a sick call episode with a patient hearing voices? Share your experience in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © victorpr –

Top 5 Posts of 2014

Top 5Thank you for being a part of CorrectionalNurse.Net this past year! Your comments and suggestions make this blog a helpful resource for nurses new to the specialty and those interested in keeping abreast of the latest news and information important to working in jails and prisons. In fact, my goal for this blog is:

Informing, encouraging, and inspiring nurses who care for vulnerable, marginalized patients in the low resourced, ethically challenging criminal justice system.

We have been around now for more than 5 years and there are over 300 informational posts in a variety of categories. Search by key word using the search field in the upper right or by category using the drop-down menu on the right sidebar.

Here are the five most popular posts in 2014. Surprisingly, three of these posts made the list in 2013; an indication of the staying power of the topics. Check them out if you missed them when they originally aired. Stay tuned for more great information in the year ahead. I hope you visit often and include your views by commenting frequently.

#5 Correctional Nurses Always on Guard

Nurses learn quickly to be watchful for their personal safety when working in a jail or prison. This post shares important points about guarding our bodies, our minds, and our hearts when we start our shifts.

#4 Dental Issues for Correctional Nurses

By far, dental issues were the greatest learning curve for me in entering this specialty. This post has some great pictures provided by Dr. Stephen Mitchell and is a big help for nurses who need to know what is routine and what is a possible emergency when dealing with dental conditions. This post was the top post of 2013 and is still valuable and popular information.

#3 Interview Guide: Part I   Part II

Many nurses discover this blog while looking for help in preparing for their first interview for a correctional nursing position. This 2-part series shares tips for determining if a correctional setting will be a safe work environment along with questions that may be asked during the interview. A perennial favorite, these posts made the number 2 spot in 2013

#2 8 Medication Rights – Not 5?

Just when you think you are up-to-date something changes. That is life as a practicing nurse. This post adds three new ‘rights’ to the classic 5-rights of medication administration and is actually reposted from the blog of a fellow nurse. A great review! This post made the top five category in 2013, as well (number 3)

#1 Five Mistakes New Correctional Nurses Make

It is easy to start off wrong in this specialty. As a correctional nurse educator, I have helped many staff nurses and nurse managers get oriented to the specialty. In my experience, I have found several common mistakes new nurses can make when they start their career behind bars. This post resonated with many readers.

What was your favorite post of 2014? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo Credit: © md3d –

December 2014 News Round Up (podcast)


cnt-podcast_cover_art-1400x1400Correctional nurse experts Gayle Burrow and Catherine Knox take a break from their busy holiday schedules to talk with Lorry about the latest correctional health care news.

News Items

WHO Preventing overdose deaths in the criminal-justice system – 2014 Update

The World Health Organization updated a white paper on preventing overdose deaths in the criminal justice system. This 30-page report examines the effect of the prison experience on post-release drug-related outcomes and focuses particularly on opioid addiction treatment. The report affirms what we see in our patient population – opioid addiction is a chronic disorder and has a high relapse rate. There are some key points to consider:

  • Drug treatment services should be similar to what is available in the community
  • Opioid dependent prisoners should be given the opportunity to start or continue substitution therapy if it is available in the community
  • Building partnerships and networks among agencies and within the community is important for success

Legal Issues Unique to Female Offenders

Our second story is a post on the website about legal issues unique to female offenders. Not surprising, the three mentioned are health care related – actually pregnancy related. About 5% of women coming into the criminal justice system are pregnant so if you have women in the system you are dealing with pregnancy issues.

The first issue discussed is the use of restraints with pregnant inmates. Medical, legal, and human rights organizations have come out against shackling pregnant inmates. The United Nations even stating that employing restraints during childbirth violates the United Nations Convention Against Torture. Yet, according to this post, less than half of state prison systems have set policies on prohibiting restraints for pregnant inmates.

The second legal issue for female offenders is prenatal care. There have been both news items and legal case reviews on lack of prenatal care or early intervention for miscarriages or initiation of labor, so this is definitely an important issue.

The final legal issue addressed in this post is the availability of non-therapeutic abortion. Non-incarcerated women have free access to abortion. This, however, can be greatly hindered in the correctional system.

Prison Infirmary Failed to Secure Medical Records

The next story is a short piece on confidential medical records being accessed by an infirmary inmate worker and then used against the patient during an altercation. Patient confidentiality is an issue in all settings but this news item is a good reminder that we can’t become complacent about having inmates in the medical unit.

Why one Alaska nurse prefers the jailhouse to the hospital

Our last news item is actually a video posted by the NBC network affiliate in Anchorage, AK. The short video chronicles the work life of Ashten Glaves, a 27 year old nurse working in the Anchorage Correctional Complex. Department of Corrections is the largest provider of medical and mental health services in Alaska. Eighty percent of the patients in the Anchorage Correctional Complex are substance involved and 65% have a diagnosable mental illness. Ashten describes herself as an accidental correctional nurse, landing a job at the jail as a new graduate. This reminds me of a guest blog post by student nurse, Sarah Medved, who was excited to discover correctional nursing while in school and will be looking for work in our specialty when she graduates in the spring.

The video emphasizes many good and accurate aspects of correctional nursing:

  • The complexity and variety of health care situations and how patient education is so important.
  • That crime should make no difference to the care provided. This nurse doesn’t want to know the patient’s charges as it doesn’t affect the job she does as a nurse.
  • That the specialty is not for everyone. Especially if you can’t disconnect your nursing care from the crimes committed.

What do you think about these news items? Share your comments below.

Thinking About Our Patient’s Families This Christmas

Christmas living roomI had some opportunity to think about inmate families over this last year and my heart goes out to them this Christmas season. So much of the holiday is about family and relationship. Yet, with around 2.4 million Americans spending Christmas behind bars, there are plenty of empty seats at Christmas dinner and many a child, parent, and even grandparent missing from holiday traditions. I think today of those who are spending Christmas without their incarcerated family members.

People end up behind bars for many reasons. Families remember the little girl who grew into a confused teen; falling in with a rowdy group of misfits who ended up taking a car on a joyride. A young father turns to drugs and soon abandons his family to chase his demons. An uncle controls his alcohol for decades before it starts controlling him and leads to a drunken car crash and manslaughter conviction.

This year I was in touch with fellow nurses with spouses or children in or entering the prison system. They were afraid for the ones they loved and felt unable to help them. Using what resources I had, I gave them what support I could to help them navigate the system. I know this wouldn’t happen where you work, but I was told about nursing staff that were less than helpful when contacted by these family members. Some were defensive and some rude or dismissive of concerns shared by family members on the outside. These were disappointing to hear and I hope few in number compared with more positive interactions.

In fact, these stories were tempered by hearing from correctional nurse colleagues about ways they have reached out to patient family members in efforts to help manage an inmate health situation. While writing the chapter on patient and family involvement for my recently published book – The Correctional Health Care Patient Safety Handbook (affiliate link)- I was delighted to hear stories from correctional nurses about how they engaged family members to provide input and understanding in a difficult patient situation.

Although some of our patients are estranged from their families due to their life choices and histories, many are not. Consider these ways to engage family members in health care situations in your correctional setting:

  • Use a positive family relationship to motivate a reluctant patient to participate in the care plan.
  • Obtain missing family and health history information necessary for the development of an effective treatment plan.
  • Gain access to prior health records and provider contact information.
  • Assist in continuity of care after incarceration.

Having a family member away during the holiday season can be difficult. Having a family member behind bars during the holiday season can be distressing. If you have all (or even some) of your family with you this Christmas – hold them close and spend a moment thinking about the children, spouses, parents, and grandparents who have a loved one behind bars right now.

PS – A special thanks to those of you pulling a shift this holiday. You are, indeed, a special nurse!

Do you have a positive experience of involving patient family in care? Share it in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © Paul Maguire –

Help! I’m Not a Mental Health Nurse! Part 1: A Deputy Calls with an Inmate “Going Nuts”

Funny crazy young doctorIf you work in corrections, you need to understand the basics of mental health conditions and treatments. For one thing, so many of our patients have a mental disorder. Estimates are that nearly 25% of inmates have a serious mental illness while over half report at least one mental condition. Secondly, even if you are providing nursing care for a medical condition, a co-occurring mental health condition can affect the nurse-patient relationship. Mental illness adds complexity to any symptom interpretation and additional potential for medication interactions. Correctional nurses administering medication need to know the reason for the medications they are providing to their patients, along with the effect and side effect profiles of an array of psychotropics. Finally, correctional nurses are regularly the only health care staff in the facility when a mental health crisis is identified by officers. Consider this jail scenario:

A deputy calls to say he has an inmate who is “going nuts.” He wants someone to come up and “do something” about this. The inmate is a 23 year old white male having many prior short stays in the jail without incident. This is the first time he has been held over with a charge of reckless driving. Anna, the nurse staffing the jail for this evening shift, is unfamiliar with the patient and with the deputy.

What is going on here? How should the nurse respond to this crisis? In a situation like this the first step is to gather information to rule out a treatable medical condition that might be causing this patient response. This nurse is preparing to contact a provider but she needs to first have all the necessary information to share with the on-call nurse practitioner. She collects her emergency bag and takes a couple minutes to see if there is any medical record on the patient before heading to the housing unit.

Medical Conditions that Cause a Psychiatric Response

While gathering subjective and objective data for an assessment, it is a good idea to have in mind the medical conditions that could be causing this response. There are several medical or organic causes of psychiatric symptoms – the two most notable are dementia and delirium tremens. This patient’s age and history do not support dementia but delirium from alcohol withdrawal is a consideration. In fact, psychiatric psychosis and alcohol withdrawal delirium are easily and frequently confused. Here is a helpful guide taken from an Academy of Family Physicians article that differentiates the three conditions:


  • Rapid onset
  • Visual hallucinations, disorientation, agitation, impaired attention


  • Chronic slow onset
  • Disorientation and agitation


  • Usually a slow onset
  • Usually oriented, visual hallucinations rare, auditory hallucinations more common

Another consideration when gathering assessment data is the physical condition of the patient. Patients in substance withdrawal to the point of delirium will be physically sick while dementia or psychosis will not likely present that way. The nurse needs to have all this information available to make a good clinical judgment about actions to take.

Safety Check – Always!

No matter what psychiatric condition is being evaluated, patient and staff safety is always at the forefront. Anna needs to be continually evaluating this patient’s potential for harm to self or others during the assessment process.

The SAFER Model for dealing with potentially violent patients should be part of interventions with a potentially violent patient:

  • S = Stabilize the situation by lowering stimuli, including voice.
  • A = Assess and acknowledge the crisis by validating the patient’s feelings and not minimizing them.
  • F = Facilitate the identification and activation of resources (mental health staff, officers, chaplain).
  • E = Encourage the patient to use resources and take actions in his or her best interest.
  • R = Recovery and referral – Leave the patient in care of a responsible professional.

Anna was able to use a calming voice tone and actions to obtain needed assessment findings. This patient was indeed ill, having insomnia, nausea, and diarrhea. He began hallucinating only recently and the initial screening in the chart indicated no past history of mental or chronic illness. Anna continually reoriented the patient to reality. While awaiting a call back from the nurse practitioner, with the assistance of security staff, she was able to relocate him from the noisy housing unit to an infirmary bed for closer observation and decreased stimulation.

A Medical Condition Rather than a Discipline Issue

Thankfully, the deputy in this case sought a medical solution to this inmate outburst rather than a disciplinary one. This may be due to a collegial and collaborative relationship among staff and management in both custody and health care disciplines. It makes a difference. By contacting medical for help, the correct treatment was provided. This inmate was, indeed, withdrawing from alcohol and in delirium tremens. Through the deputy’s initiation of evaluation and the nurse’s astute assessment, the patient was started on a benzodiazepine; first with a high dose to get the blood level up and then tapered to response. He successfully recovered from the delirium during a short hospital stay. He was referred to substance dependency community services on release from the jail.

Have you ever had a similar patient situation? Share your thoughts and tips in the comments section of this post.

Photo Credit: © Shmel –

De-Escalating Critical Incidents (podcast)


cnt-podcast_cover_art-1400x1400Melissa Caldwell, PhD, a clinical psychologist and Director of Mental Health Services for Advanced Correctional Healthcare in Peoria, IL, shares tips for dealing with escalating patient anger or frustration. Do you practice Mental Health Standard Precautions at work? Dr. Caldwell relates this concept in the podcast as being continually aware that any patient situation could become volatile and prepare accordingly. Good advice! We are working with patients who are confined because they are a risk to the public yet we forget that they continue to be a risk while in the facility. That risk has not been neutralized. It should always be in the back of our mind that any patient could become unexpectedly volatile; initiated in some unanticipated way. Don’t be caught unaware.

Here are some other tips from Dr. Caldwell’s discussion on this podcast:

  • Anger and frustration can come from both our patients and ourselves in a patient encounter. Monitoring our own professional approaches to our patient population can help us manage critical incidents.
  • Think of your therapeutic approach as a tool in the health care tool box. Develop your ability just as you would any other nursing skill.
  • Hold unconditional positive regard for the patient. See your patient as a person deserving appropriate care. Maintain a climate of mutual respect. You can respect someone even if you don’t like them.
  • Verbalizing what you are seeing can help the patient see that you understand. This does not necessarily mean you are saying that how they are responding is appropriate. That is an important difference.
  • Listen without interruption. Allow the patient to fully express themselves before responding.
  • Confrontation has little to do with you; but you can make it worse or better by how you respond. Be aware when a patient is getting under your skin.
  • Express empathy with the patient’s perspective. You can empathize with someone even if you don’t agree with them.
  • Have congruency between what you say and what you do. Words and actions must match. For example, don’t make promises that can’t be kept. If you say something, do it. If you can’t do something explain the reasons.
  • Center yourself before a patient interaction. Assess your own mindset. Be particularly attentive if you are having a bad time in your personal life or are ill.
  • Be mindful of your peers in their responses to patients. Help each other to reduce confrontations.
  • Sometimes just letting the person calm down is all that is needed. If there is space and everyone is safe, let the patient run out of steam before responding.
  • Sometimes the best tool we have is to sit calmly and listen with a calm facial expression and head nodding.
  • You don’t necessarily need to be directive. It is better to help the patient discover the way to solve their own issue. We can give support and guidance rather than give them the solution to their problem.
  • Have an exit plan if the patient continues to be volatile. Be sure you know where the officer is and how to activate their involvement.
  • If you know that you are going to deliver bad news (can’t provide medication or treatment desired) you may need to alert the officer on duty to be available for an escalated situation.

In the News

Sugar, not Salt may be Causing Hypertension

The British Medical Journal published an article suggesting that we have been focusing attention on reducing salt intake to reduce hypertension when it may be the sugar in highly processed foods that is the culprit. The article lays out a defense of this proposition based on epidemiology studies. The author concludes that reducing high sugar over-processed foods can be of benefit in reducing hypertension. Correctional nurses can advocate for healthier menus and commissary options for our patients.

Violence Against Nurses Continues

Violence against nurses in hospitals across the country is chronicled in this article from Medscape. Reported violence against nurses is on the increase – up over 6% – according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The specialty cited as experiencing the greatest number of incidents is emergency nursing. I wonder if nurses in correctional settings were even a part of that study. It would be interesting to compare violent incidents toward emergency and correctional nurses. I’m thinking that the greater availability of security officers in our setting might bring our numbers down below those in the emergency setting. What do you think?

Have you ever been in a volatile situation with a patient? How did you handle it? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

I Found Correctional Nursing and I Love it!

Smiling, happy health care professional, nurse making hand heartThis guest post is written by Sarah Medved, a senior nursing student at Grand Canyon University. She shares her story of finding correctional nursing as a specialty.

Nearing graduation, I get a lot of congratulations and questions about where I want to work. I usually get raised eyebrows when I proudly state that I want to be a correctional nurse. I also get plenty of weird looks and discouragements. Some people don’t even know what I am talking about. “What is that?” they say. It gives me an opportunity to talk about the invisible world of nursing behind bars.

I became interested in correctional nursing through an assignment during my first year of nursing school. The assignment was to research an area of interest in nursing. I looked up all the different types of nurses on the internet and noticed correctional health on the list. I thought it sounded different and kind of exciting so I gathered some information, and presented my findings to my classmates. From that point on, all my classmates knew how interested I was in correctional nursing!

Being involved in my school’s Student Nurses Association allowed me the opportunity to attend the Arizona Nurses Association Symposium/Student Nurses Association Convention. This year there was a raffle for the students to win a coffee date with a professional nurse in various fields. I noticed there was a correctional nurse as one of the options, so, of course, I bought a handful of tickets to ensure I would win this great opportunity!

When I met with the correctional nurse, I was beyond excited because I never had the chance to talk to someone who was actually in the field. She provided a massive amount of information and excellent insight into the profession. I always had a light inside fueling my passion, but that day my light turned into a burning fire of desire.

Since then, I have had the opportunity to network with a new graduate in the field of correctional nursing. I always thought it was impossible for a new graduate to get a job in what seems like such a specialty area. The common advice for new graduate nurses is to work at least a year or two on a medical/surgical unit to gain basic skill. But, I had one inspirational instructor who told me to follow my dream of being a correctional nurse; to go into the area I am passionate about. My coffee date confirmed this. It was important for a correctional nurse to suggest going right into the specialty from school. Are the basic skill sets that much different?

As I reflect on my experience as a student nurse discovering the correctional nursing specialty, I am wondering why more nurses don’t know about this hidden opportunity. It seems like a well-kept secret. I also wonder why the responses I get about correctional nursing are not very positive. Are nurses who work with inmates somehow considered insignificant or inferior among others in the nursing profession?

Nurses take care of millions of people coming from all walks of life. To me, the only difference in a correctional nurse is knowing that the person is incarcerated. Nurses in a hospital take care of people who have been in jail, but they just may not know it. In some cases, people are wrongly accused and end up in jail for things they never did. Anyone can be at risk for going to jail no matter how unlikely that may seem. As a nurse, I want to provide equal and just healthcare to everyone regardless of their criminal background. I am not treating a person based on their lifestyle or circumstances. I am treating a person – PERIOD!

Have you experienced raised eyebrows or discouragement when you shared your correctional nursing background or interest? Share your thoughts in the comments section of this post. Are you a correctional nurse with an inspiring story to share on the blog? Contact Correctional nurse authors of posted stories receive an autographed copy of one of Lorry’s books.

Photo Credit: © pathdoc