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2021 APNA Award for Excellence in Education

Michael Terry, DNP, FNP, PMH-NP

Acting, improvisation, and clowning skills are not typically brought to bear in psychiatric-mental health (PMH) nursing, but Dr. Michael Terry has elevated advanced practice PMH nurse education for thousands of students by coloring outside the lines.

Fusing aspects of his long history in theater arts into his role as a Clinical Professor and PMH-NP Program Coordinator at the University of San Diego Hahn School of Nursing and Health Science, Michael has implemented high-fidelity behavioral health simulations his students will never forget.

After an eye-opening conversation with former UCSF colleague Dr. Patricia Benner, Michael was inspired by a discussion of the “gap” between theory courses and clinical training among nursing students.

“Students memorize facts to pass an exam on one side of the divide. On the other side, they become apprentices of their clinical mentor, their preceptor. But there’s no bridge between the two areas.”

Michael built that bridge, changing the curriculum so classes are more like extended seminars with numerous training modules and clinical resources packed into each course – all linked together through hands-on experience via psychotherapy simulations where students can practice CBT, motivational interviewing and solution-focused skills, as well as couples and family therapy assessments.

Simulations involve well over 50 students, faculty, and additional simulation staff. Michael trains actors to embody the distress of individuals with mental health concerns who then serve as ongoing “patients” in need of care. Local psychiatrists and psychiatric pharmacists have been recruited as partners by Michael to serve as theory faculty.

“We start with what is commonly found in a lot of programs, basic psych interviewing and clinical decision-making,” says Michael. “But patients -actors in this case- are brought in [who] may need to be admitted or receive help with problem-solving, social skills development, relationships, behavioral activation, crisis intervention and suicide assessment, and creating a safety plan. The goal is to integrate psychopharmacology and psychotherapy and learn supportive psychotherapy skills for patients in distress. As the patient becomes less acute, we shift to expressive psychotherapies – in our case CBT. When students graduate, they feel like they’ve been through the wringer, but they know their stuff.”

During the pandemic, Michael also pioneered a seamless pivot to tele-mental health simulations and has “flipped the classroom” – front loading lecture content into self-training modules, and reserving class time for group discussions focused on what’s most important to the students, their questions and providing support to help them cope. The model has worked so well, that he plans to continue this formula when classes resume in-person.

Michael says he finds his career focusing “upriver” extremely rewarding: “I began as a paramedic, then an FNP for 30 years, and a psych NP for 20 years and realized that I could help more people by training PMH-NPs then I ever could impact just by myself. I’ve been teaching full-time for 13 years now and have never regretted that decision.”

Michael has dedicated his innovative career to supporting and mentoring students in their journey to becoming excellent mental health clinicians. He models the universal therapeutic benefits of love, humor, and joy for his students, infusing infectious positivity and passion into every moment of his teaching. Students actively stay connected to Michael, in fact, he’s still in contact with the program’s first graduating cohort and one member of that cohort returns to guest lecture every year.

Michael shares, “We’ve found that when we interview students for our program, students who do best tell us that this is a calling for them. They are pulled to serve in this specialty area. We all must remember what calls us. Find what pulls you and keep with it.”