2023 APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year
Bethany Phoenix, PhD, RN, CNS, FAAN
Nominated by Matthew Tierney
Beth Phoenix has devoted her career to elevating the field of psychiatric-mental health nursing: helping to expand the workforce and using her persuasive voice to bring nationwide attention to gaps in mental health services. “I have always thought of nurses as great changemakers and was drawn to that. It was the direct connection with people that made PMH nursing really hit the spot for me,” says Phoenix.
“PMH nurses have a lot of authority because we are the ones doing the work. We have to harness this authority, get better at promoting the value of our work, and work together to elevate the PMH nursing profession,” Phoenix urges. “I encourage PMH nurses to speak out.”
Phoenix has conducted visionary research, defining pressing mental health needs of the nation and addressing how those needs can be met with the unique abilities of PMH nurses. She led the way to define the mental health workforce and champion the principle that PMH nurses have always been “at the table” and ready to serve. At the same time, she was constantly expanding numbers of PMH nurses as an educator supporting regional, national, and international efforts to address challenging mental health needs.
Phoenix started her career working in med-surg, maternity and travel nursing, then made a move to San Francisco, taking a position in the San Francisco General Hospital (SFGH) inpatient psychiatric unit. Phoenix confides,
“I found that one of the most rewarding parts of PMH nursing is bringing your full humanity to the work. Really engaging to try to understand a patient’s world and how they can live more comfortably in it.”
Over the course of her 15 years at SFGH, she noticed the limitations of the mental health system and the lack of preventative services. Seeing an opportunity thanks in part to her practice of Buddhism and its goal-oriented nature – she looked for ways she could make the greatest positive impact. For her, the answer was found in teaching.
While earning a masters from the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and (with encouragement from her mentor, Dr. Linda Chafetz), a PhD, her passion came into focus. Her dissertation on the path to recovery for patients with co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders would serve as a springboard into further research and advocacy.
She explains, “There’s a really hopeful aspect to focusing on a patient’s recovery, social support, and paying attention to other health behaviors. Things that as nurses, we know are so basic to good health. Seeing recovery in action is very inspiring.”
Phoenix actively stresses the importance of PMH nursing professionals developing their advocacy skills:
“We all need to be able to make a case for why change is needed. It’s critical for PMH nurses to find their voices, get their facts lined up, and effectively advocate for the changes needed to advance our profession.”
Phoenix has used these skills herself to advocate at the state level for expanded use of PMHNPs and to serve in key roles, like her position as the only nurse on a National Academy of Medicine panel where she infused PMH nurse perspectives into improving mental health services for veterans.
To support the training of PMH advanced practice nurses and the application of treatment for today’s most challenging mental health needs, Phoenix secured more than $14 million in grant funding overall. A grant-funded effort early in her career merged the roles of ANP and Psychiatric CNS to provide integrated care – predating the PMHNP designation – and paved the way for additional nurse-led development of now-popular integrated care models.
A $4 million grant, funded by the United Health Group, supported the development of pipelines to expand diversity in the PMH nursing workforce, supporting racial/ethnic and gender/sexual minority students to pursue careers providing mental health services to children and youth and expanding training opportunities working with these populations.
A Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) grant she secured funded work to demonstrate the ability of PMH nurses to improve access to depression treatment through collaborative care structures. Phoenix has also contributed nursing-centered perspectives to accelerate access to medications for opioid use disorders (MOUD) and participated in original research and field work to define barriers and facilitators to PMH nurses providing MOUD. The work of her team – often published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, and other influential journals – is widely recognized as innovative, advancing the field of PMH nursing practice, and promoting key policy changes.
Along with research and advocacy Phoenix’s role as educator has made a positive mark on the PMH nursing field.
Phoenix has prepared a generation of nurses, teaching key courses on the impact of trauma, psychiatric assessment, and group therapy, while supporting the development of new nurse education programs to help expand the PMHNP workforce. She recalls, “I had a great mentor who opened doors for me, and now I’m most proud of the doors I’ve been able to open for others – connecting students with leadership opportunities, grant support, or their dream job…developing a career is complicated. Most people need a guide to present the options available. Nurses tend to hide their light under a bushel, so it helps to have someone to acknowledge their particular talents and be their cheerleader.” One of her nominators for the award noted, “It is a rare gift to be enriched via imparting strength and confidence to others. It is not what Beth does, it is who she is.”
Active in APNA throughout her career, Phoenix served as APNA president in 2012, when she focused attention on the importance of mentorship connections through the Mentor Match program and further elevated the PMH nursing profession through her advocacy work.
In many ways, Phoenix has managed to be that cheerleader, not just for individuals she has encountered, but for the profession as a whole. She has helped to motivate, activate, and shape today’s PMH nursing workforce through representation, advocacy, and research. Though initially drawn to the one-on-one connection of nurse to individual in PMH nursing Phoenix has learned to use a voice that all PMH nurses can echo to make a difference for those they serve.