Anxiety and anorexia. Depression and attention deficit disorders. Stress and schizophrenia. These and other mental illnesses affect more than 57 million Americans each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. For those who suffer from it, the consequences of mental illness can be devastating, increasing the risk of unemployment, substance abuse, homelessness and suicide.
“There is a great need for mental healthcare workers,” says Decker School Clinical Assistant Professor Linda K. Tuyn ’97. “Worldwide, depression is second only to heart disease as a public health problem. And in the United States, the causes of mental illness seem to keep increasing.”
Helping to address this need, the Decker School of Nursing three years ago established its graduate-level Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program. In May, the program graduated its first two students. In addition, three other students received post-master’s certification as psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners. Following professional certification, all will be qualified to assess, diagnose and treat patients with mental illness.
“This program has pushed me harder than any coursework I’ve ever had before,” says Kate Slotwinski ’07, ’08. A two-time graduate of Binghamton University, with degrees in French and nursing, Slotwinski admits to an almost genetic interest in psychiatric nursing. “Both my parents are social workers in Rockland County,” she says, “and my mother is a psychiatric nurse in private practice. So when Decker began the psychiatric nursing program three years ago, I was really excited to join.”
The program involves classroom and online experiences, as well as 600 hours of clinical experience in hospital or outpatient settings. Students learn individual and group therapy techniques, mental and physiological diagnostics, and advanced health assessment.
Currently there are 11 students in the program. “We want to keep the program relatively small so that we can maintain our attention to students and give them the faculty contact they need,” says Mary Muscari, associate professor and director of the O’Connor Office for Rural Studies at the Decker School of Nursing. Nonetheless, she expects the program to double in size in the coming years because psychiatric nurse practitioners are in high demand.
Many of the program’s students are already practicing RNs or nurse practitioners. Students say the ability to earn advanced certification online is a strong selling point. “The online program fits my schedule,” says Leah Scilingo, a post-master’s student who has been a nurse and nurse practitioner for more than 30 years. “While it is more work doing everything on the computer, I feel it is worth it. The good part,” she laughs, “is that you can be doing your work and the laundry at the same time.”
Apart from the boost to their careers that psychiatric nurse practitioner certification provides, students also are motivated by the personal rewards that come from helping troubled patients. “People with mental illness have to overcome huge challenges — they often have other illnesses, or have problems keeping jobs and have to deal with issues like homelessness. They deserve respect for their efforts,” Slotwinski says.
The commitment and dedication of the students is not lost on their professors, Tuyn says. “Those who work with the mentally ill have a deep and abiding respect for people — you have to have compassion and concern to work with people in psychic pain. It is humbling and potentially spiritually broadening and helps you to learn about and be in touch with your real self.”