2012 APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year

“You will not find a more ardent supporter of psychiatric nurses,” says Mary Ellen O'Keefe in her letter nominating Mary Ann Nihart for APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year. Indeed, her passion for the profession spills over as she talks about why she got into the field: “Unlike when I worked ICU, I am the therapeutic tool, not a machine or a protocol.  It is some of the most personal and complex work you can do with another human being.  The human brain, cognition, and emotion fascinate me…I have always viewed psychiatric mental health nursing as a ‘tool’ or ‘holistic’ as it impacts everything.  Psychiatric nurses can be involved in all aspects of health care since an individual's psychological well-being impacts outcomes across the wellness-disease continuum.  I love that!” One cannot help but catch her enthusiasm: "Through her teaching and example Mary Ann shares her vision and invites each of us to accept her challenge to fully participate in our profession,"says O'Keefe.

Nihart is currently a Nurse Manager of Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at the San Francisco Veterans Administration Medical Center. “I walk in the front door every day and cross over a carpet that says ‘The Price of Freedom is visible here’ and my heart soars…after almost two years that has not stopped” she says. At the VA, she manages the nurses in nine outpatient psychiatry locations, is the leadership point person for the Behavioral Health Center, an Acquisition Team Clinical Lead for their mental health contract services, a member of the core mental health leadership team, and chair of the hospital wide Patient and Family Education Team. She also helps out with consultation liaison work on the medical units. She describes it as “busy, creative problem-solving and the most satisfying work I have ever done.” It is inspiring to “work with some of the top medical researchers in psychiatry, who are all great collaborators, and most importantly serve those who have served us.”

But that’s not all: Nihart is also a member of the Clinical Faculty at UC Davis, a presenter at numerous APNA conferences, and has served as President of the APNA California Chapter. To add to the list of her extensive professional work, she is involved in her own consulting and private practice and is co-owner of the Pro-ACT and Pro-ACT Restraint Certification programs, which help professionals develop the skills necessary to reduce or avoid instances of patient restraint. She has developed curriculum and coordinated projects nationally for the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration, one of which specifically involved the implementation of the mental health component into the National Response Framework for FEMA. She is also a dedicated community activist: She is on the city council of her hometown, served as mayor, and is currently running for a second term!

Nihart graciously took the time to answer a couple of questions for us:

What are a couple of points that stand out for you in your career?

Meeting Hildegard Peplau tops the list, especially since I was presenting at Ohio State right after her and in front of so many nursing leaders at the time. So many people wanting autographs and pictures surrounded her after her lecture that she was literally trapped at the foot of the stage when it was my turn to speak. I presented a 20 year review of biology in psychiatric nursing with Dr. Peplau looking up at me. It was the early 1990s and biopsychosocial nursing was very controversial. I was nervous beyond words, especially since I knew Dr. Peplau would not agree with most of what I had to say and I had to look her in the eye while I said it. I took a deep breath, looked at the audience, and went on. After my presentation we all met for lunch and we had a great talk. I was fortunate to have the chance to speak with her individually on several occasions after our first meeting and was always struck with her poise, dignity and determination.  What an amazing leader!

Another high point is working with a young woman who I met early in her recovery.  She was significantly depressed, had a severe eating disorder and a heroin addiction.  After the initial work, I remained in touch with her for brief therapy at various points across a fifteen year span.  Over the years I watched her literally grow up, become a young woman, receive her degrees, begin a successful career, get married and have children.  She now helps others. This young woman is but one of many who I have been fortunate to work with and watch as they succeed.  What a very special privilege it is to do this work!

Why did you choose to get involved in APNA and what is your vision for the association?

My mentors of course. Kitty (Kathleen Buckwalter) began taking me to Midwest Nursing Research Society meetings as a graduate student and then other professional meetings. Having a specialty organization gives us a voice and a place at the table when professional practice decisions are made.  It is a way to grow and share and develop. A strong professional organization is vital!  It is an honor to serve and participate in efforts that help us all. We were the first recognized nursing specialty and we are the leaders for other specialties. As we all face many challenging times ahead, I hope APNA continues to grow and remain a strong voice in nursing and in health care.

What are three things that you would like every PMH nurse to know?

  1. The need for psychiatric nurses is everywhere, in every clinical setting, and in every specialty!
  2. The skills, thought processes, and experience you gain as a psychiatric mental health nurse serve well in many arenas outside of health care.
  3. Psychiatric Nursing has never been just a job for me and I have never simply worked for a hospital or another agency.  It is a profession, a way of life, a calling, and I will always work for the individuals we serve.  As Linda Beeber once told me, compliments, honors, and awards will come and go, but what is most important is "the work" that will always fuel your passion...and she was right!


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