Shirley Smoyak, RN, PhD, FAAN
2011 Award for Distinguished Service

Shirley Smoyak, RN, PhD, FAAN is an icon in psychiatric mental health nursing. Her teaching, research, and work have shaped the profession in no small way. She was not initially drawn to PMH nursing, however. At the time she graduated from her baccalaureate program at Rutger’s University, “I thought I wanted to be a midwife,” she says. She worked in delivery and labor for a year, but found it too rigid. Not long after (in the early 1950s), she returned to Rutgers to begin graduate studies in Peplau’s first MS class in psychiatric nursing. She remembers studying under Peplau in her undergraduate years as well. “I was very impressed with the fact that she would give us an assignment to write and when we got it back, she would have written more comments than we had written for the assignment,” she jokes. After graduating with her MS, she worked as a clinical specialist for a brief period before returning to Rutgers, this time as a member of the faculty.  Peplau “convinced me that I should join the faculty,” she says. “I wanted to be a clinician but she persuaded me to come to Rutgers.” Smoyak taught while also earning a PhD in Sociology…and she continued teaching there for the past forty-odd years.

An avid writer and editor, Smoyak has been the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services since 1981. She reviews all of the abstracts submitted for inclusion in the journal. “The diversity is very intriguing,” she says. How she came to the position is quite a story – “Back in the late ‘70s ANA had its convention in Atlantic City, right here in New Jersey,” she remembers. “This man had invented the Academy of Psychiatric Nursing” and had a booth there. It was not a professional association, she stresses, and it greatly annoyed her and her colleagues. “We wanted him to blow up that academy!” To protest, “thirty or forty of us locked arms and stood around the booth and sang.” The man came up to Smoyak and asked just what they were doing. “We are protesting and making our voices heard,” she told him. “That’s what we did in the 70s,” she laughs. After some back and forth with Smoyak, he desperately asked what it would take to get them to stop. They made a deal – he would abandon this Academy of Psychiatric Nursing and Smoyak would find 5 people to join the board of his psychiatric nursing journal. And that’s how she ended up working with the journal. “It really came out of that protest,” she says.

Smoyak is also a passionate researcher and is currently studying college students’ use of high energy drinks, particularly with alcohol. “Guess where the high energy drinks are in the grocery store,” she says. With the coffee? With the soda? No. “At the end of the aisle with the juice.” She finds it concerning that these drinks are marketed to children, especially when they contain the rough equivalent of three coffee’s worth of caffeine. Even worse, the alcoholic energy drinks produce a dangerous “wide-awake drunk,” the caffeine masking the alcohol’s effects and promoting risk taking, she explains. This summer she completed the first phase of the research, interviewing police and faculty on college campuses about what they knew of these drinks. (“Not as much as you would think for people who are responsible for the welfare of students,” she says.) The next phase involves surveying students on their knowledge, attitudes and practices with regards to these drinks, and will then be followed by the development of an educational model. The idea behind this educational model will be “you have fifteen minutes of the students’ attention – here’s what you tell them,” she explains.

In her free time – though it is hard to imagine that she has any with all that she does – Smoyak says that she likes to sing, travel, and cook. She just got back from a trip to Spain with the Rutgers Newark Chorus, in which she is an Alto and also serves as the chorus nurse when they travel. A foodie, she likes to share her cooking with friends. She recently entertained about 50 people in her backyard with a Hungarian-style feast! She is truly a woman of many facets – her contributions to psychiatric mental health nursing, her public advocacy, her writing, her hobbies – it’s impossible to do it all justice!

As a true force in the mental health and psychiatric nursing community, we owe a great deal to her work. APNA is honored to have her as one of our founding members and we extend our heartfelt gratitude for her influence in shaping the association, strengthening our voice, and helping to ensure that psychiatric nursing has a seat at the table.