Linda Oakley, PhD, RN

I became interested in psychiatric nursing without knowing it. When I was little, I was what the elders called an old child. I had attended schools that were warm and sunny with every room filled with books and paper and music and colors to paint and draw with. Like every one of my generation, I have vivid memories of the lunch room and the lunch room ladies. And I remember my teacher, Mrs. Smithson, and my first A+ in math. I also attended segregated schools for colored children. Nothing was warm or sunny and I don’t remember the lunch room or the lunch ladies.  

As a child I never saw anyone who was sick but I remember everybody always talked about being sick. At least that’s what it was called. Men were sick of being called boys.  Women were sick of being strong. Whatever their sickness was, it was real enough for people to die. What I didn’t understand was how.  What was this and how did people die from it? And why, after someone died, was their sickness called heart attack, or stroke, or sugar, or alcohol? I didn’t understand. At that time I was living in the deepest south of southern Georgia, and in Georgia, everybody studied-on everything. I neatly folded away my thoughts and questions and decided I would study-on them when I grew-up.

"Over the years I’ve learned much from people sickened by social inequities, people living with poorly understood neurobiological syndromes, and people damaged by stigma."

I followed my childhood interests into nursing school. My first job and the beginning of my career in psychiatric nursing was a surgical floor in the world famous Massachusetts General Hospital. We had admitted a woman in her 30s who shot herself in the stomach. She lived but her wound was shocking and difficult to care for. She weighed over 300 pounds at a time when obesity was unusual. But it was the hostility of the nurses towards this woman that made me curious. And my curiosity pulled at my neatly folded childhood thoughts and questions. 

I spent as much time with her - and her wound care - as I could. She talked and I listened. Soon it was clear to me she had the sickness. It also was clear to me she had not tried to kill herself. She tried to kill the fat that was trying to kill her. That experience both widened and focused my thoughts and questions; what kind of sickness does this to people, and then makes everybody hate them? 

I learned this sickness is mental illness and - without help - it can affect every cell in your brain and your body and every area of your life, including your relationship with you. And people will blame and shame you for it. Psychiatric nurses have a unique approach to mental illness. Because we are nurses, we see ill people as people coping with illness. We strive to partner with people by providing personalized care to help them cope and recover.  Over the years I’ve learned much from people sickened by social inequities, people living with poorly understood neurobiological syndromes, and people damaged by stigma. Their stories inform my research, practice, and teaching and now direct my next steps forward.

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