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J Psychiatr Ment Health Nurs. 2005 Oct;12(5):541-9.

Observation: the original sin of mental health nursing?

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  • 1Clan Unity International, Fife, Scotland.


The assessment and management of 'risk' has become a focal aspect of contemporary mental health practice. Given their proximal relationship with service users, nurses most often represent the 'front line' of risk management, typically expressed in hospital settings through the bureaucratic process of 'observation'. Much of the available 'evidence' is highly critical of this practice and service user researchers, in particular, have repeatedly called for alternatives. This paper reviews the historical and inter-professional dimensions of the practice of observation, contrasting this with mental health nursing's search over the past two decades, at least within the UK, for professional autonomy. Contemporary mental health nursing is trapped in an anachronistic relationship with psychiatric medicine. If nursing is to prosper, nurses must address the complex issues underlying this inter-professional relationship. The authors describe the development of 'bridging'--a radical alternative to observation practice, which represents a means of managing 'risk' and a way that nurses might develop their interpersonal relationships with people deemed to be at risk, thereby asserting the power of 'caring'.

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