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Bethany J. Phoenix, RN, PhD, CNS, FAAN, is the coordinator of the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nursing specialty at the University of California, San Francisco. Nursing Degree Guide recently spoke with Bethany about her experiences in Psych Mental Health Nursing, and her role as the president of the APNA.

Tell me a bit about the APNA and your role in the organization.

It’s the largest organization representing psychiatric nurses in the U.S. (about nine thousand members). Our focus is on education and professional development. We also engage in some advocacy activities such as educating policymakers and health care organizations about the value of psychiatric nursing. The organization has been active for twenty-seven years. I was President-Elect last year, and have been President since Nov. 2012. As president I got to choose the theme for my presidency, which is carried out in the organization’s activities and provides the theme for our annual conference. My theme is “Leading Change, Advancing Mental Health.” I also function as the spokesperson for the organization when statements or press releases are called for, and write two bi-monthly columns. What I most enjoy is meeting so many amazing people in the organization and helping to create leadership opportunities where they can shine! Before becoming president I served as Member-at-Large on the Board of Directors for two years before becoming President-Elect. I was also the Chair of the Advanced Practice Council and a task force on dual certification.

Tell us about your education and any programs you attended specifically for psychiatric nursing.

I got my R.N. diploma at Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing, then my B.S., M.S., and PhD at Univ. of CA San Francisco School of Nursing. I originally planned to become a community health nurse, but after my psychiatric rotation in nursing school I decided that was my real passion. My M.S. degree is in psychiatric nursing and my PhD research focused on recovery in people with co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse.

Did your clinical experiences truly prepare you for working in psychiatric nursing?

I had a great clinical experience in psychiatric nursing at McLean Hospital during my diploma program—I loved being in an environment that used relationships as the most important tool in treating peoples’ mental health problems. In my other rotations I hadn’t had so much time to talk with patients and teach them strategies to improve their overall health, not just their psychiatric symptoms.

What aspects of working in this area do you enjoy the most? What poses the biggest challenge?

The opportunity to share people’s very personal and often difficult experiences and being able to use both my presence and my professional expertise to help them find better options for dealing with them. Frustration with the shortcomings of our system of mental health care—it is often difficult for patients to get the services they need.

What special skills does it take to work in psychiatric nursing?

Psychiatric nursing requires good active listening skills to an even greater extent than other types of nursing. Since purposeful use of self is central to psychiatric nursing, the ability to tune into one’s own responses, examine them, and use them therapeutically is key.

What advice would you give to someone who was considering a career in your field?

If it’s something you’re passionate about, go for it!

What is the demand currently like for psychiatric care nurses?

There is a substantial demand for Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioners that will increase as the Affordable Care Act provides mental health coverage to many who need it but do not currently have access. At the Psychiatric R.N. level, I expect that there will be a growing demand in community settings and possibly less demand in inpatient settings.

Do you feel as though the quality of care in psychiatric nursing is moving in the right direction?

There is always room for improvement. Because of stigma toward people with mental illness, mental health is not treated as a priority in many arenas, which has a negative effect on psychiatric nursing. Schools of nursing and health care systems often don’t devote sufficient resources to training psychiatric nurses, and the field has lagged behind some other areas of nursing in identifying quality indicators and initiating quality improvements. APNA is working on improving this situation with initiatives such as our e-Learning Center and development of competencies that address issues such as suicide prevention.

Do you think “bedside manner” has improved or do you think technology and other factors interfere?

It does seem to me that health care has become too focused on “productivity” and documentation to the detriment of relationship-based care. Without attention to developing more effective models of care for the many people who need mental health services, it could just become an assembly line that keeps going faster and faster.

What are your own future career plans?

I want to continue teaching at UCSF—I love my job! I also hope soon to obtain my certification as a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and to spend a little less time teaching and a little more time in clinical practice.

How about future plans for the APNA?

APNA is planning to offer an online certificate program focused on basic psychiatric nursing skills to address some of the issues mentioned above. We hope to expand our Mentor Match program to connect psychiatric nurses looking for mentors with experts in the field. We have so many initiatives going on, I can’t list them all—check out our website at!

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