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To gain insight into medical surgical nurses' process(es) of categorising mental illness in general hospitals.Categorising patients is a daily social practice that helps medical surgical nurses understand their work and actions. Medical surgical nurses' categorising of mentally ill patients in general hospitals is a means in which they articulate their understanding of mental illness and perform their clinical practice. How medical surgical nurses categorise, and the impact that categorising can have on their work practices is poorly understood.A focus group study.Focus group discussions (n = 2) of medical surgical nurses' understanding and experience of delivering care to patients with mental illness in a general tertiary referral hospital were conducted in November 2014. Discourse analysis was used to analyse the transcribed data to uncover how participants made discursive evaluations and how this related to their daily clinical practice.The analysis uncovered participant's use of four categories of mentally ill patients: the managed, the unpredictable, the emotional and the dangerous. For participants these categories explained and justified their clinical practice as linked to the challenges and barriers they experienced in providing effective care within the larger healthcare organisation.The language used by medical/surgical reflects the wider discourse of managerialism in healthcare organisations. The recognition of these categories can be used by educators, liaison mental health services and policy makers to reconsider service design and learning opportunities for medical surgical nurses to reduce stigmatisation of patients with mental illness.