How To Develop Empathy Skills In Psychiatric Nursing: A Practical Guide

Published on June 07, 2024, 6:50 am
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Are you a psychiatric nurse or studying online psych NP programs or courses? It is an exciting and challenging career pathway, with room for progression, learning, development and problems to solve. You might end up working in an inpatient mental health setting, or outpatient, or outreach, or for a private mental health rehabilitation centre or other mental health care provider.

Whatever the setting, you need a certain set of skills to become a psychiatric nurse, including knowledge of and procedures for administering mental health medications such as antipsychotics or antidepressants. You will also learn how to provide vital primary healthcare for people experiencing all types of mental illness and distress.

Empathy is a vital skill for a psychiatric nurse. This practical guide will share how to develop empathy skills in this professional setting and why they are vital to your success when working with patients. So, continue reading to learn more about this valuable topic.

What is Empathy?

The word “empathy” is used to describe a wide range of experiences as it relates to your understanding of other people’s emotional experiences, mental state and traumatic life events. Emotion researchers typically define empathy as the capacity to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to put yourself in their shoes and identify with what someone else might be thinking or feeling. It differs from sympathy, which is feeling sorry or bad for someone without necessarily stepping into their headspace and seeing what it might feel like if you were in the same position.

Contemporary researchers on this topic often postulate that there are two types of empathy: “Affective empathy” refers to the sensations and feelings we experience in response to others’ emotions. This can include mirroring what that person is feeling, feeling it yourself, or just feeling stressed or on edge when we detect another person’s fear or anxiety. “Cognitive empathy,” which is sometimes called “perspective taking,” refers to your ability to identify and understand other people’s emotions and make sense of them. Studies suggest that people with autism spectrum disorders have a hard time empathizing with other people, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they can’t feel or engage in meaningful relationships with friends and family.

Why Empathy is Important for Psychiatric Nurses

This is a vital skill to develop, nurture and practice in this role. In most instances, you’ll be working with people at the most distressing points of their lives. You might work closely with people with mild to moderate mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or eating disorders. Or, you might work with people with severe mental health disorders including, but not limited to:

  • Bipolar disorders I and II
  • Borderline personality disorder
  • Suicidality or suicidal ideation
  • Schizophrenia
  • Schizoaffective disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Delusion disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Furthermore, you may work with people with multiple diagnoses who are experiencing psychotic symptoms or outbreaks characterized by delusions of grandeur, paranoid delusions, audio and visual hallucinations or drug-induced psychoses.

When people have these issues in their lives, they are vulnerable and have probably experienced traumatic events in childhood or their adult life that contribute to their mental health issues and overall distress. As you can see, empathy is a vital skill to work with people who may be experiencing incredible psychic pain and trauma.

Am You Already Empathetic?

You might already be a highly empathetic person, but you haven’t had the language to identify this aspect of yourself until now.

Here are some signs that show that you have this tendency or personal quality:

  • You are a good listener, or people tell you that you are
  • People often tell you about their problems or bring you issues to listen to and solve
  • You often think about how other people feel and how they are going
  • Tragic events hit hard for you
  • You actively try to help people who are having a hard time
  • You feel drained, overwhelmed or tired out after a big social event
  • You are good at telling when someone is lying or avoiding telling the truth
  • You sometimes feel drained or overwhelmed after social events or difficult conversations
  • You care deeply about other people, even those that are not that close to you.
  • You find it difficult to set and maintain boundaries in your relationships.

If none of these resonates with you, it may be a sign that you need to work on developing and nurturing your empathetic skills, which we’ll now focus on.


Like any skill, you can practice empathy until it becomes second nature. It is like a good habit; by practising regularly and reminding yourself to be empathetic, you can easily achieve this over time and with repetition. This will set you up well for a stellar career in mental health or psychiatric nursing.

  • Work on listening to your patients without interrupting
  • Pay attention to patients body language and other types of nonverbal communication such as eye contact, or lack of. 
  • Try to understand patients’ perspectives, even when you don’t agree with them
  • Imagine yourself in your patient’s shoes
  • Strengthen your patients to learn more about how they feel and what they are experiencing
  • Seek to identify biases you may have or have learned and how they affect your empathy for your patients
  • Look for ways in which you are similar to others versus focusing on differences between yourself and patients, such as socioeconomic background, career pathways, or substance and alcohol abuse
  • Get involved in organizations or healthcare providers that push for social change.

As you can see, there are a range of strategies and tips for developing and maintaining an empathetic state of mind, which you can apply to your work in psychiatric nursing.

One practical tip is to practice empathy with the patients in your care. They don’t need to know you are doing this, and you cannot hurt or harm them by practicing empathy. An empathetic approach will always make a patient feel heard, safe, secure, and cared for, which is precisely your role as a nurse in a mental health setting.

Developing An Empathetic Summary

This informative article has shared how psychiatric nurses can develop empathy skills to utilize in their practice and care for mental health patients. We have shared what empathy is, the different types of empathy, and why it is important in this career pathway. Also, we have explored whether you might already have empathy and practice this skill without knowing it and explained how you can practice empathy in your work. By now, you are an expert on this topic and ready to implement it in your nursing career or studies.

Jonas Bronck is the pseudonym under which we publish and manage the content and operations of The Bronx Daily.™ | - the largest daily news publication in the borough of "the" Bronx with over 1.5 million annual readers. Publishing under the alias Jonas Bronck is our humble way of paying tribute to the person, whose name lives on in the name of our beloved borough.