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2023 APNA Award for Distinguished Service

Mary Ann Nihart


Nominated by Heather McCormick

Mary Ann Nihart is a transformative leader and educator whose dedication to APNA and the field of PMH nursing has inspired countless professionals to pursue careers in PMH nursing. Her leadership of initiatives at the local, state, and national levels along with her contagious enthusiasm are worthy examples for other nurses to follow.

 “My passion is PMH nursing; it’s in my soul,” she shares. “The very center of my work has always been to further advance the ever-evolving role of the PMH nurse and help provide connections and new opportunities for the professionals who choose this complex specialty. PMH nurses are my family and APNA is my home.”

From the very start of her career, working in a surgical unit, Mary Ann was naturally drawn to patients with emotional or social problems. This interest inspired transitioning to full time PMH nursing work and a masters degree in Community Mental Health. She emphasizes, “I’ve always loved people, figuring out relationships, and how people interact. The neuro side of the work appealed to me, and I was drawn to the biological psychosocial approach. PMH nursing allows you to integrate everything in nursing. You can do all kinds of work in all kinds of areas. So, it became clear to me early on that psychiatry was where I belonged.”

Mary Ann drove west, landing in San Francisco, and began work in community mental health and later at St. Mary’s Medical Center. An unexpected round of cutbacks further refined the trajectory of her career, providing her with specialized training in consulting and education. This exposure to teaching created the perfect fit – fusing together energizing work as an educator with her love of PMH nursing.

Completing a second masters degree in Clinical Psychology helped Mary Ann add a new facet to her work, traveling across the state teaching social workers and other mental health staff within the California Extension program at UC Davis. During this time, she contributed to numerous public health projects, child welfare work, and crisis interventions.

While sustaining a private practice and providing ongoing consultation for outpatient, residential, and hospital settings, Mary Ann took on a new role at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs (VA) Health Care System, managing nursing staff in nine outpatient programs and later becoming Chief Nurse for Mental Health, Critical Care Services and the Cath Lab. She was elevated to Clinical Director Chief Nurse for Ambulatory Care-Community Based Outpatient Clinics and Telephone Linked Care and co-wrote the grant that funded the first PMHNP residency program at the San Francisco VA in conjunction with the University of California, San Francisco. During her tenure, Mary Ann led the development of three new residency programs – two masters programs in practice preparedness and one for bachelors students to support their transition to practice.

Mary Ann served as Associate Clinical Professor at the U.C. San Francisco School of Nursing while taking on increased responsibility as Associate Director for Patient Care Services/Nurse Executive at the San Francisco VA. She explains, “Interestingly, while my role at the VA is an administrative role, it is very much a psych position – managing interpersonal relationships and conflict resolution. It’s never a dull moment, new problems to solve, new people to meet. I’ve always kept one day a week for my clinical practice to maintain my skills, but that was always my favorite day of the week.”

Putting her commitment to PMH nursing into action, Mary Ann became an impactful force of nature within APNA. She stepped forward to serve at the state and national levels and on special projects – including the development of one of the first slide kits for APNA and the substance use module as part of an APNA model curriculum for psychiatric nurse prescribers.

Mary Ann explains, “I went on to serve as President of the APNA California Chapter, I traveled the state working alongside a great chapter leadership team to strengthen connections, provide educational and networking opportunities, and expand our membership. It brought me great joy to present at state chapter conferences and to mentor new members through their first presentations.”

The field of PMH nursing was further strengthened through Mary Ann’s expansive education efforts to instruct PMH nurses via presentations and keynote addresses – consistently encouraging PMH nurses to submit posters and podium presentations and highlight their own important work.

In 2015, Mary Ann was elected APNA President, selecting as a theme for her tenure – PMH Nurses: Inspiring Leadership Every Day – and traveled to many states to champion leadership development for PMH nurses. She emphasizes,

“Collaboration with stakeholders and other specialties is essential to building successful relationships for our PMH nursing community. In my view, APNA provides the voice of psychiatric nursing. Leading with a strong voice ensures our field has a significant seat at the table.”

Mary Ann’s commitment to advancing PMH nursing is further exemplified in her involvement in several national initiatives. She served on the APNA Ketamine Task Force, the APNA Institute for Mental Health Advocacy Steering Committee, the APNA Council for Safe Environments Steering Committee, and as a member of the APNA Board of Directors. Honored with the APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year Award in 2012, Mary Ann continues to serve today as Chair of the APNA Clinical Psychopharmacology Institute (CPI).

Interestingly, Mary Ann paired her leadership skills and PMH nursing experience to help transform her community. While serving as Mayor for the City of Pacifica, the community faced a 6-hour standoff involving a person experiencing long-standing schizophrenia, which ultimately ended in his death. Mary Ann led numerous community meetings to support citizens and increase mental health awareness. She worked tirelessly to ensure community policing classes included mental health training, taught trauma-informed interactions, and promoted the expansion of mental health content in police trainings throughout San Mateo County.

“Involvement in a strong professional organization is vital for growth and development,” Mary Ann advises. “APNA is my home and has provided a framework, platform, and outlet for my commitment to PMH nursing. It has been a great honor to serve and participate in efforts that help us all.”