In this article, the sources and features of moral distress as experienced by acute psychiatric care nurses are explored.
A qualitative design with 16 individual in-depth interviews was chosen. Braun and Clarke’s six analytic phases were used.
Approval was obtained from the Norwegian Social Science Data Services. Participation was confidential and voluntary.
Based on findings, a somewhat wider definition of moral distress is introduced where nurses experiencing being morally constrained, facing moral dilemmas or moral doubt are included. Coercive administration of medicines, coercion that might be avoided and resistance to the use of coercion are all morally stressful situations. Insufficient resources, mentally poorer patients and quicker discharges lead to superficial treatment. Few staff on evening shifts/weekends make nurses worry when follow-up of the most ill patients, often suicidal, in need of seclusion or with heightened risk of violence, must be done by untrained personnel. Provision of good care when exposed to violence is morally challenging. Feelings of inadequacy, being squeezed between ideals and clinical reality, and failing the patients create moral distress. Moral distress causes bad conscience and feelings of guilt, frustration, anger, sadness, inadequacy, mental tiredness, emotional numbness and being fragmented. Others feel emotionally ‘flat’, cold and empty, and develop high blood pressure and problems sleeping. Even so, some nurses find that moral stress hones their ethical awareness.
Moral distress in acute psychiatric care may be caused by multiple reasons and cause a variety of reactions. Multifaceted ethical dilemmas, incompatible demands and proximity to patients’ suffering make nurses exposed to moral distress. Moral distress may lead to reduced quality care, which again may lead to bad conscience and cause moral distress. It is particularly problematic if moral distress results in nurses distancing and disconnecting themselves from the patients and their inner selves.