Career path: mental health nurse educator

August 2015 Vol 15 (4)

A tight job market on graduation saw MEL GREEN enter mental health, then a supportive new graduate programme after realising how nursing can make a difference to people’s mental illness experience. Leadership opportunities saw her make it a career.

Mel Green SouthernName: Mel Green

Job title: Nurse Educator for Mental Health, Addiction and Intellectual Disability Directorate (MHAID), Southern DHB, Dunedin

Nursing qualifications:

  • Bachelor of Nursing 1996 (Otago Polytechnic)
  • Master of Nursing 2006

Briefly describe your initial five years as an RN

I began my career working in the sub-acute unit in Mental Health, Addiction and Intellectual Disability (MHAID) Services in 1997. Within the first four months of practice I was fortunate to have the opportunity to enrol in a new graduate programme for mental health and addiction nurses which had just been established in Dunedin. This enabled me to gain specialist knowledge and skills and provided me with a solid foundation for working in the mental health and addiction setting.

After completing the new graduate programme, I transferred to a surgical ward for a year until a clinical and leadership position became available in the clinical rehabilitation unit in 1999. While on maternity leave in 2003, I worked for Otago Polytechnic with undergraduate students on clinical placements in mental health and addiction and I then went on to work for the Psychiatric Consultation Liaison Service at Dunedin Hospital.

Did you have a career plan (vague or definite) on becoming an RN? And how did those first five years influence your subsequent career?

I was involved in St John cadets for 10 years during my schooling, which prompted my interest in nursing career. My initial plan when I graduated as a nurse was to work in a medical or surgical ward but because there were no jobs available at the time I applied for a position in mental health and addiction services. After 18 months in the mental health service, I still had a strong desire to work in a medical or surgical specialty, which I did and thoroughly enjoyed. I was then drawn back to mental health by an opportunity in a clinical rehabilitation unit.

It was during these early years that it became evident to me how much nursing can make a real difference to people’s experience of mental illness/distress. I have found the mental health environment to be supportive, innovative and I was impressed by the multidisciplinary approach to patient care.

Throughout my career I have been very fortunate to have been guided in my various roles by some excellent clinicians/colleagues and a very wise mentor who has a vision and passion for nurses and who never loses sight of the importance of endeavouring to ensure that the services we provide meet the needs of patients and families.

What qualifications, skills or stepping stone jobs do you think were particularly helpful and/or necessary in reaching your current role?

There are many experiences throughout my career which have been helpful for my current role, including management experience, working with students and working clinically. Postgraduate education was particularly valuable in encouraging me to read widely and challenged me to use the knowledge gained to think critically. These skills are a significant part of my current role.

For many years now I have been a member of Te Ao Māramatanga, New Zealand College of Mental Health Nurses. For the past five years I have held the positions of college vice president and treasurer and I was convener for the College Conference held in Dunedin in 2011. The roles with Te Ao Māramatanga have enabled me to connect nationally with many mental health and addiction nurse leaders who provide a voice for the profession of mental health and addiction nursing in New Zealand.

On occasions I also have the privilege of providing mental health representation for the Nursing Council of New Zealand when it is auditing nursing school programmes. These opportunities enable me to have a broader perspective about issues related to nursing, more specifically mental health and addiction nursing, and keep me feeling enthusiastic and interested in working in this field. They also help create an awareness about the wider socio-political context of health and mental health nationally and internationally which informs the educator role.

What personal characteristics do you believe are particularly important for nurses working in your role?

Ability to relate well to others, curiosity, the ability to critically reflect on practice, energy, enthusiasm and self-motivation, desire to improve the quality of care provided to service users. The ability to think broadly about workforce development needs of the service whilst also paying attention to the detail that is required to organise and facilitate education and complete the project work that is part of the role.

What career advice would you give to nurses seeking a similar role to yours?

  • Find a good mentor(s)
  • Be open to challenges and opportunities (step out of your comfort zone)
  • Always critique what you are doing and why you are doing it (with a focus on improving quality of care for service users and families)
  • Read widely and be well informed
  • Be open to critique and don’t be defensive
  • Seek out a broad range of opportunities and experiences (which will help inform the educator role)
  • Don’t get caught up in what ‘we must do’ and what ‘we can’t do’ but what ‘we can do’ to improve the care we provide to service users.

Describe your current role and responsibilities

The MHAID directorate nurse educator role has a focus on workforce development across the directorate, including NGOs (non-governmental organisation providers) and PHOs (primary health organisations).

The focus is on providing opportunities for staff to further develop their knowledge and skills to enhance the quality of care that service users receive.

Working with colleagues, I help develop and implement an annual education programme, which includes between 80–100 training days each year for more than 700 staff across Otago and Southland.

As well as providing education, nurse educators are involved in service development, incident investigations, supporting clinicians with postgraduate study as well as a variety of mental health and addiction projects, all of which aim to ensure as educators we are well informed.

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