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Nursing heeds the call for psychiatric health care

February 14, 2013

Recently, the Pentagon reported 349 military suicides in 2012 — outnumbering the 295 American soldiers who died in 2012 in Afghanistan — and warned of a worsening trend as more soldiers return stateside and transition back to their families and communities. The sobering statistics, advocates say, drive home the need for yet a stronger commitment to accessible community-based mental health services.

Photo: Linda Denise Oakley


Under the leadership of the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Nursing’s Linda Denise Oakley, a professor of nursing and Gulf War veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, the school has launched its Post Graduate Psychiatric Nursing Capstone Certificate Program. The program’s charge is to shore up the numbers of mental health care professionals in hospitals, clinics and community settings.

“Although we have interventions to help people recover from psychiatric disorders and mental health problems, we only have a fraction of the number of psychiatric professionals needed,” says Oakley. “Day after day, we learn about families trying to get mental health care for their loved one, but they can’t do it. They can’t because all too often, there simply isn’t any.”

According to Oakley, the capstone certificate program is designed to respond to state and national workforce demands to increase the number of experienced, board-certified nurses in the psychiatric mental health workforce. ”I anticipate that our program will give students the knowledge and competence to look for mental health care needs in diverse populations and be able to help people meet those needs.”

Jackie Joachim is a student in the program’s inaugural class. She is also a Gulf War veteran, having served from 1988 to 1997 in the U.S. Army National Guard, where she began as a field medic. She currently works as a nurse practitioner (NP) in an outpatient mental health clinic in Waukesha, Wis.

“Day after day, we learn about families trying to get mental health care for their loved one, but they can’t do it. They can’t because all too often, there simply isn’t any.”

Linda Denise Oakley

“I worked in the field of psychiatry for three years without specialty certification,” says Joachim. “I decided that I wanted to be board certified in mental health. I think patients with mental illness are best cared for by professionals who are specialized. I was thrilled when I learned that UW–Madison was offering the psych certificate program.”

Joachim, who grew up in Cambridge, Wis., enlisted partially based on information from her two older brothers who had joined the military. “I joined the Army for experience, career stability, its unique challenges and, furthermore, because I thought it was the right thing to do for both myself and for our country as a whole,” says Joachim.

After returning from the war, Joachim developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a psychological condition that can occur after an individual experiences or witnesses an event involving actual or threatened death or serious injury to oneself or others.  In Joachim’s case, however, PTSD was mostly attributed to a traumatic event three days after she returned from service.

“My first husband and I were in a fatal car accident,” says Joachim. “He did not survive. This traumatic experience, coupled with military deployment at such a young age, made it difficult to cope.”

 Shortly thereafter, she focused on obtaining an advanced nursing degree in psychiatric mental health. She became an NP about six years ago. “I chose this simply because I knew I could do more,” she says. “I grew up in rural Wisconsin on a small pig farm. I can appreciate the pain of everyday life and the difficulty of finding adequate health care.”

The certificate program is a good fit for advanced practice nurses like Joachim, says Oakley. “Students seeking admission to our program have told me they see the need for more psychiatric health care professionals in communities that have too few nurses and want to be among the practice leaders who are working to make mental health care accessible.

“Our program is necessary because mental health care works,” adds Oakley. “Advanced practice psychiatric nurses are innovative leaders in practice and policy. We need to bring our expertise forward.”

Kathleen Corbett Freimuth