Assessing the Mentally Ill Patient: Part 3

Last week we had just finished an assessment of a young man with agitated, restless behavior. These are some of the key findings from our assessment of the patient:

Does not respond to questions or requests in a  coherent way.

  •  Vocalizes words but they are not logically connected to express thought.
  • Increased agitation when interviewed.
  • Appearance of visual & tactile hallucinations.

The patient is not in touch with current reality and has symptoms of abnormal cognitive status. This is the definition of psychosis. Our initial nursing diagnosis is that the patient is at risk of deterioration or injury as a result of a psychotic condition.  The first step in our plan is to place the patient in the inpatient unit, for safety, additional assessment and monitoring. See Chapter 12: Mental Health for more information about the assessment of psychosis including more detail about patients experiencing hallucinations and delusions.

Delirium is characterized by:

  •     Rapid onset or mental status that fluctuates over the course of a day and
  •     Inattention, or difficulty focusing, distractibility or inability to track what is said and
  •     Disorganized thinking, incoherence or an altered level of consciousness (hyper-alert, lethargic, stuporous). 

Another piece of advice for nurses in correctional settings is to always consider medical causes as a possible explanation for psychotic symptoms. The next step is to look at the onset of symptoms and consider whether the patient is likely to be experiencing delirium rather than a psychotic disorder.  It is important to identify delirium early because the underlying medical problem can be treated and the symptoms reversed. Key findings from our patient assessment that suggest delirium are:

  • Condition has deteriorated within the last 24 hours.
  • Not responsive to questions or requests.
  • Increased agitation and hyper-vigilant.

Medical conditions that can cause delirium include:

  • Alcohol or drug withdrawal
  • Drug abuse
  • Electrolyte or other chemical imbalance including metabolic or endocrine diseases
  • Infection
  • Poisons
  • Medications
  • Surgery
  • Other conditions that deprive the brain of oxygen and other nutrients (cardiopulmonary diseases, CNS disease)

The patient denied any history of alcohol or drug use when interviewed during receiving screening. Now that it is 72 hours later, his symptoms and their onset suggest alcohol withdrawal so we further assess the patient using the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment of Alcohol Scale, Revised (CIWA-Ar).  The results of this further evaluation lead us to conclude that this patient is in moderate to severe alcohol withdrawal.  We call the provider with our findings and request treatment orders. The focus of treatment is to prevent seizures and to address fluid and electrolyte imbalances. The plan of care also includes serial assessments to monitor the patient’s status closely and a safe environment to prevent injury.  For more information about the assessment and treatment of alcohol and drug withdrawal see Chapter 5 in the Essentials of Correctional Nursing.

Always remember that psychiatric symptoms, such as psychoses, can be caused by medical conditions.  When identified and treated these symptoms can be completely reversed.  Objective, descriptive assessment, use of standardized screening tools and attention to the possibility of both medical and psychiatric etiology contribute to accurate clinical judgments.

If you haven’t already order your copy of the Essentials of Correctional Nursing directly from the publisher at

Photo Credit: © termis1983

One thought on “Assessing the Mentally Ill Patient: Part 3

  1. Pingback: What would you do in this situation? Comparing clinical judgement. | Essentials of Correctional Nursing

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