This paper examines the literature on patient assessment in nursing, with particular reference to assessment in psychiatric nursing It finds that most nursing assessment is concerned with gathering physiological information about patients while effectively ignoring psychosocial indices This phenomenon, it is argued, is due to historical factors in the socialization of nurses, the particular version of nursing process imported into the UK, and an oversimplification of the concept of ‘need’ which has encouraged nurses to focus on patient disabilities but has ignored their capabilities It is proposed that nursing assessment should be a relatively lengthy process, increasing in specificity, involving gathering and analysing information from a holistic perspective about individuals'/families' health concerns Then, by applying concepts from appropriate conceptual models, a nursing diagnosis to those health concerns is proposed. This proposal is supported by a discussion of the process, functions and methods of nursing assessment Finally, while recognizing the importance of social causation theories in psychiatric care, it is argued that community health assessments are beyond the scope of individual nurses