Merrie Kaas, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN
2013 Award for Excellence in Education

“An academic career in psychiatric mental health nursing is not just about teaching, it’s about building,” says Merrie Kaas, PhD, RN, PMHCNS-BC, FAAN. “It’s about providing for the future. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, but it’s also the most rewarding.” This year’s Award for Excellence in Education recipient has been teaching since she was 26 and has taught all over the country. Currently, she is the specialty director of the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program at the University of Minnesota. “The reason I’ve stayed in education this long is that I love being around creative, intelligent, passionate nurse leaders,” she says. “I found a home in academia with other people who are like minded about nursing – they’re passionate about it and really want to move the profession forward however they can.”

Kaas’ career focus has always been a dual one – care of older adults and mental health care. “They’re so wise; they teach me,” she says of older adults. “I like working with a population where the connection between mind, body, and spirit is so relevant, so important.” In addition to her position with the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, she has a clinical practice where she sees adults and older adults, is involved in research projects involving dementia care, and is in the midst of developing the field of integrative psychiatric mental health nursing. She is Associate Director of the FLAG (Facilitated Learning to Advance Geriatrics) at the Minnesota’s School of Nursing’s Hartford Center for Geriatric Nursing Excellence, one of only nine in the country. “Trying to keep both feet both feet firmly on the ground in both the care of older adults camp and the mental health care camp is exciting but sometimes exhausting!” she says.

Clearly enthusiastic about education and eager to encourage others to consider an academic nursing career (“there is a workforce issue not only for clinicians, but also for faculty”), Kaas has quite the elevator pitch for nursing education. “For people who love learning, who have an entrepreneurial spirit, who like to create, who want a variety of roles in their career, and who like being around people who love learning– all of that is part of a career in academia,” says Kaas. “You can make your career what you want it to be. You can come to this by very different paths.” But it’s not just about the flexibility and variety; it’s also about the opportunities you have as a psychiatric/mental health nurse educator to move the profession forward. “We have the chance now to shape the next generation of psychiatric mental health nurses,” she says. How does she keep her students engaged? “By being in organizations such as APNA, learning from my patients, students, faculty colleagues, and mentors, going to conferences, reading and writing,” she says. “I’m always curious about what’s on the horizon, what ideas are next, how these ideas connect, and how I can be the bridge between the most current ideas and issues relevant to psychiatric nursing and my students. I know that I have only 3-4 years with the students in school but I am preparing them for a long career, not just their first job as a PMH NP. I want them to learn to think not just do.”

One idea she is particularly excited about is integrative mental health care. “It’s one idea that I think people will connect to because it doesn’t just focus on patient care, it means self-care too,” she says. She just published a couple of chapters in a new nursing textbook that discuss the topic and is in the midst of planning the second integrative psychiatric mental health conference in Minneapolis for October 2013. “Little by little we’re getting the word out. Clinicians don’t want to just be prescribers and patients don’t want to just take pills,” she explains. “And the medications aren’t always effective. Integrative psychiatric-mental health care is not just about using a particular CAM modality. It’s person-centered integrated holistic care, using the least intrusive interventions first.  Integrative mental health is also about self-care and how to maintain a balanced life so we can be present with our patients, colleagues, and family.” Kaas has just received a 3 year grant from the Health Resources Service Administration to develop interprofessional teams of nursing, pharmacy, and OT faculty and students to teach and practice integrative mental health care in psychiatric/mental health clinical sites. Clearly Kaas will continue to stay engaged and passionate about psychiatric nursing.