Perceiving risk in dangerous situations: risks of violence among mental health inpatients


Steve Trenoweth,
‘ K’ Block,
West London Mental Health NHS Trust,
Middlesex UB1 3EU,


Background. Violence in British psychiatric hospitals appears to be escalating, with nursing staff the most frequent victims of assault. There is also public concern about violence on the part of individuals with mental health problems. In this climate, assessing a patient's risk of violent behaviour has become an important part of mental health care. However, little research has been published into how mental health nurses undertake such assessments in their day-to-day clinical practice.

Aim. The study focused on how mental health nurses make assessments of risk in clinical crisis situations where there is a perceived likelihood of imminent violence. The study sought to identify skills, cognitive processes or any other mechanisms which nurses draw upon to assist in such assessments.

Method. Ten experienced mental health nurses working in a secure mental health environment were interviewed and data generated was analysed using a grounded theory approach. An in-depth literature search was also undertaken.

Findings. It was found that, in their risk assessments, nurses rely extensively on their personal knowledge of their patients (in particular, previous history of violent behaviour; biographical data; and impact of the mental health problem on violent behaviour). Nurses ‘tune in’ to potentially violent situations by observing a scenario as a whole, as well as specific aspects of a patient's behaviour, whilst also searching for causes of the violent behaviour. In making clinical risk assessments, nurses often make rapid, intuitive judgements in which various possibilities are considered regarding the likelihood of violent behaviour (such as the capacity and capability of a patient to be violent and the potential in the situation). It was also found that the ability to intervene successfully in potentially violent situations reduced the level of risk that nurses felt exposed to, and here nurses draw on their knowledge of a particular patient. They also perceive lower levels of risk when working in a skilled team.

Conclusion. The study indicates that the development of nurse–patient relationships and working in a supportive team are perceived as protective factors against risk. Implications of the research are discussed in relation to nurse–patient relationships, particularly in the context of the current nursing climate and the way in which violent behaviour may lead to an erosion of these relationships. The importance of ‘working in a team’ is discussed, as is the consequence of the findings for education and development. Methodological limitations of the study are also discussed.