Touch in mental health nursing: an exploratory study of nurses' views and perceptions


M. Gleeson
School of Nursing & Midwifery
Trinity College


The aim of this study was to explore psychiatric nurses' perceptions of physical touch with people who experience mental health problems. A descriptive exploratory qualitative research design was used. Semi-structured interviews were carried out with 10 registered psychiatric nurses who met the inclusion criteria and were randomly selected to participate in the study. Burnard's 14 stage-by-stage process of coding and categorization was used to analyse the data. Watson distinguished between two kinds of physical touch: instrumental and expressive. The findings indicated that physical touch was used in mental health nursing; however, it was only considered to be therapeutic to clients if used judiciously, with effective interpersonal skills. The participants in this study clearly identified the need to be sensitive to both the individual client needs, and honour their personal space and cultural background. A significant issue in this study was male participants concerns that touching female clients would be misinterpreted as a sexual advance. To protect themselves, male participants used touch in a cautious and minimal manner, and only in a public space, where others could view the interaction. In the absence of research on physical touch in mental health nursing there is a need for further research to explore in detail these findings.