Illustration by Kat Wetherbee

Pick up any newspaper, turn on any cable news network, scan any media website – you’re likely to find at least one story that addresses mental health. The topic is making headlines, due in part to the 24-hour news cycle and high-profile cases such as the tragic loss of comedian Robin Williams.

Many health care professionals believe that the next few years will mark a pivotal time in mental health treatment. The nursing profession is being called to the frontlines to assess and treat patients with mental health challenges, and Stritch faculty members in the Ruth S. Coleman College of Nursing and Health Sciences are answering this call in innovative and distinctive ways.

The World Health Organization defines mental health as "a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community." By contrast, mental illness includes a range of mental health conditions including mood, cognitive and behavioral disorders. Often used interchangeably in contemporary discourse, the two terms are quite different and a lack of understanding can contribute to stigma and impede treatment.

The Faye McBeath Foundation and other individual philanthropists funded curriculum development, clinical experiences and interprofessional workshops for Stritch faculty as the University implemented a series of initiatives addressing mental health needs in the greater community.

"The Faye McBeath Foundation’s grant support continues to provide professional development experiences for faculty, ensure that students learn the skills they need to be effective in mental health care settings and promote positive attitudes toward mental health patients," said Dr. James P. Loftus, Stritch president.

Infusing mental health into nursing curricula

As the medical professionals likely to log the most time with patients, nurses often are in a position to detect underlying or undiagnosed mental illnesses. Many nurses, however, are not trained in mental health treatment. Through its pre-licensure Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program, Stritch is equipping nursing students to provide comprehensive medical care for patients.

During the 2014-15 academic year, faculty completed curriculum development for six nursing courses within the BSN program to fully integrate mental health content into coursework. Through the process, faculty developed learning outcomes, identified mental health concepts and framed topic outlines.

"With a mental health strand integrated into the BSN curriculum, students gain a greater understanding of concepts to meet the needs of persons with mental illness," said Dr. Kelly Dries, ’03, ’14, dean of the College. "Instructional strategies teach our nurses about mental health, break down the stigma associated with mental health issues and help to remove barriers to working in the field."

In addition to integrating a mental health focus into the BSN, the College also developed partnerships with clinical agencies to evaluate potential placement opportunities. Students were placed at several community health agencies in 2015 including Curative Rehabilitation, Jewish Family Services, Milwaukee Interfaith, Repairers of the Breach, and United Community Center.

Colleges collaborate to provide better student care

The Ruth S. Coleman College of Nursing and Health Sciences also is collaborating with the College of Education and Leadership to examine and share resources between faculty. These inter-professional activities focus on providing support to children and adolescents.

"Interdisciplinary collaboration among nurses, health care providers and teachers improves the quality and delivery of care," said Dr. Kathy Van Eerden, '14, associate dean of nursing.

The Colleges worked together on four case studies to be used in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing and Master of Arts in Urban Education programs. The studies and related coursework focus on the roles of teachers and nurses in serving children with mental health needs.

The evolving case studies include:

  • An Introduction to Mental Health Issues in Children
  • Supports for Students with Mental Health Needs
  • Nurse-Teacher Collaboration
  • Collaborating with Families & Communities

The workshop included expert speakers, sessions on future curriculum enhancements and presentations of faculty-led case studies.

Resource guide created

To further meet the changing needs of society, the Ruth S. Coleman College of Nursing and Health Sciences created a comprehensive resource document, which provides information on common mental health disorders seen in children and adolescents.

Data from the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that one in five youth between the ages of 13-18 will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder during their lifetime.

"Recognizing mental health issues is imperative in order to find effective treatment for our youth so they can experience hope and health," Dries said. "The Mental Health Resource Guide provides information for teachers, school nurses and families who are interested in improving the mental health of children and adolescents."

The guide provides information on access to services, signs and symptoms of common diagnoses and reference information on additional resources. Also included is contact information on available services and support in the Greater Milwaukee area.

"The guide is truly unique in that it includes local, state and national resources," Dries said. "It is important for us to provide practical information for parents, educators and health care professionals."