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Photo by Robert Steckmest, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications
Photo by Robert Steckmest, Division of Strategic Marketing and Communications

UMKC Graduates First Class of Mental Health Nurse Practitioners

Michele Withrow feels honored to be among the first graduating group from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Family/Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program. What she has learned from the master’s degree program will help the people she works with in Joplin.

“Mental health providers are lacking, especially in the Midwest, especially in Joplin where there’s such an incredible need after the tornado,” said Withrow, who has worked as a nurse for 17 years. “So many people not only lost their material possessions but they lost their careers and their loved ones. There’s a lot of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.”

The distance-learning program began in 2011, and is a collaboration between the UMKC School of Nursing and Health Studies and the Missouri Department of Mental Health to offer a psychiatric advanced practice specialty option that allowed employed psychiatric nurses to be trained at the advanced practice level.

“The UMKC School of Nursing and Health Studies is proud to contribute to the national call for more psychiatric nurse practitioner master’s programs,” said Ann Cary, dean of the School of Nursing and Health Studies. “Locally, Jackson County is listed by the federal government as a health professions shortage area (HPSA) for mental health providers. There simply are not enough to meet the standard ratio for mental health providers to patients.  Improved access to quality care is imperative, and nurse practitioners who specialize in mental health are one of the answers to improving care for individuals, families and the population.”

A Family/Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) can provide the full range of psychiatric services to individuals, families or populations across the lifespan. Employment settings often include outpatient mental health clinics, psychiatric emergency services, private practices or hospitals. Primary mental health care provided by these nurse practitioners involves continuous and comprehensive services necessary for the promotion of mental health, prevention and treatment of psychiatric disorders and health maintenance. They may also serve as consultants or as educators.

“The degree will allow the graduates to move from generalist psychiatric nursing to advanced practice,” said Erin Ellington, clinical assistant professor and PMHNP program director at the UMKC School of Nursing and Health Studies. “These advanced skills, including diagnostics and medication management, will increase the services provided to those desperately needing mental health care. Building on their already existing psychiatric nursing skills, these graduates are quality future providers. I am thrilled to have been part of their training.”

Along with Withrow, the other graduates are Sue Clavette-Markowitz, a psychiatric hospice care provider who wants the degree to complement the integrative therapies she uses with patients in the Kansas City area; and Josh Herwig of Farmington, Mo., who works for the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

UMKC offers a 43-credit-hour distance learning PMHNP program that includes 660 clinical training hours. Most of the informational learning is offered through Blackboard, a web course platform accessible to students from their home computer. Students are required to attend an onsite orientation as well as several onsite residencies during their psychiatric core courses. Clinical training with instructors begins in the specialty courses. Clinical experiences include outpatient, inpatient and crisis settings; assessment, diagnostics, medication management and psychotherapy are taught across the lifespan.

Students complete their training in five semesters in full-time study, or seven to eight semesters in the part-time option. Graduates of UMKC are eligible to sit for national certification as a Family PMHNP by the American Nurses Credentialing Center. Most states require certification from the credentialing center, and often require collaboration with a psychiatrist to prescribe medication. Nursing practice is regulated by state laws; licensing and scope of practice varies state by state. To learn about laws and regulations, contact the state’s Board of Nursing.

Historically, mental illness has carried an incapacitating stigma that has contributed to limited or absence of care. Even though recent progress has resulted in a better understanding of the causes of mental illness and the development of better treatment, mental health services continue to be lacking. This is due in part to a shortage of psychiatric providers, particularly in rural and low socioeconomic communities. This shortage is even more severe for child and older adult populations.

As many as 20 percent of adults and children experience mental health interruption during their lifetime. The World Health Organization has reported that major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disorder are included in the top ten most disabling illnesses.


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