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Five considerations for working with populations with mental illness

By Rachel Hicks, RD

Nutrition and its association with mental health and mental illness is becoming more and more recognized. Compared to the general population, individuals with complex mental illness (CMI) are at a greater risk of developing disease comorbidities (abnormal triglycerides, hypertension, glucose dysregulation, and abdominal obesity) and subsequent chronic disease (cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetes). This is significant, especially considering 1 in 5 Canadians experience some sort of mental health issue.

I recently completed a three-month placement at Waypoint Centre for Mental Health Care, which is a medium and maximum security inpatient psychiatric facility. I was also involved with Waypoint’s outpatient facility and affiliated services such as the HERO Centre, which helps individuals manage their mental illness in the community.
Our role as dietitians working with those that have CMI is well defined. Yet, where are all of the dietitians working with CMI populations who are at significant risk of chronic disease? Many community mental health centres do not have dietitians and the inpatient facilities that do hire dietitians are generally understaffed.
I experienced this first-hand during my internship as I had placements at both the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and Waypoint. Up until March 2016, there was only one dietitian covering all inpatient (> 300 beds) and outpatient services at Waypoint!  We are being under-utilized in this population. There is an important need for our expertise, particularly at the onset of illness, in order to help CMI clients with the nutritional issues they may encounter throughout their lives.
Upon realizing this, I began to ask myself these questions:
  • Are all dietitians trained in their undergraduate education and/or internship to work with this population? Should our education have mandatory training on working with this population?
  • Do dietitians feel competent working in mental health and mental illness settings?
  • What advocacy work needs to be done for our profession to be more involved with this population? 
  • What can I do to help as a new dietitian with some experience and interest in this area?

As a dietitian with a strong interest in this area, I thought I could share some of my insights from my recent experience.
Here are five things to consider when working with clients with mental illness:
  1. Focus on small improvements.
This population often has complexities inherent to their mental illness that pose significant barriers to adequate nutrition (e.g. addictions, food security issues, lack of motivation/support/education, medication side effects, mental status, etc.). Working in small steps with these clients is usually the most successful. As always, dietitians need to be supportive and recognize what type of nutrition education is appropriate on a case-by-case basis.
  1. Learn to be adaptable.
Problem solving and thinking on your feet is key while counselling individuals with CMI. You need to be able to let go of your original plan if needed. You may be referred to see a client for one thing and end up providing education on a completely different topic or just end up offering your empathy and support to whatever struggles they may be encountering at the moment. 
  1. Recognize when a client may be receptive to nutrition intervention. 
The learning needs and styles of most individuals with CMI can be very different from the general adult population. For instance, you may need to reduce the grade level of resources, provide more hands-on opportunities (i.e. cooking classes), and continually repeat and/or reinforce important education points.
Become familiar with the complexities of the various illnesses and learn to recognize when individuals may be receptive to nutrition interventions. A very common symptom among this population is amotivation. Clients can find it extremely challenging to do what you may think is a small task. Be patient and meet a client where they are at.
  1. Use some detective skills.
Working with this population requires investigative skills and intuition. It can sometimes be difficult to clearly determine if the information clients are telling you is the truth. This can be the case for any population, but particularly with clients with mental illness as they may be struggling with delusions, OCD behaviours, or have personality disorders that can impact their response to something, such as a 24 hr recall or food record. Dietitians need to develop rapport with these clients, be aware of their social, medical, and psychiatric history and learn how to recognize when someone may not be telling the truth.
Knowing when to probe and knowing what information to probe is key. Speaking with other professionals on a client’s health care team (i.e. social worker, psychiatrist) or a family member can be very helpful to gain more insight on their personality traits in connection with their illness.
  1. Recognize, appreciate, and learn from a client’s socio-cultural surroundings and past experiences.
Remaining client-centred (or what I prefer, person-centred), culturally sensitive, and using strategies from trauma-informed care and harm reduction is essential. It’s important to understand that all cultures do not view mental illness in the same way, some clients will believe in certain medicinal or food-related remedies and others will not. Acknowledge this and work through these differences with clients and their support systems. As many ethical issues can surface while working with this population, ethically sounds interventions are critical (as always).
There is a lot more to discover with regards to dietitians working with this population. This list could go on and on. People with mental illness should be able to easily access nutrition care and we should routinely be involved in their interdisciplinary health care teams – particularly for individuals on antipsychotic medications.
Most – if not all – dietitians will encounter someone with mental health issues during their career. In my opinion, more training should be required for dietitians in this area; whether that be embedded into a compulsory undergraduate course or e-learning module to complete during internship. We can truly make a positive impact in this area.
Read why dietitian services are important in mental health

Find resources to support your practice in nutrition and mental health

Rachel Hicks recently completed her Master of Public Health in Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly Community Nutrition) at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. She is interested in many areas of nutrition on a local and global scale and has developed a passion for working with vulnerable populations in diverse communities. Connect with Rachel on LinkedIn.  

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