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Family Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program addresses mental health care shortage

Posted: Dec. 8, 2014

Today in the United States, health care and mental health care are often divided into two nonintegrated treatment systems, and of the two, mental health care is the more poorly supported. The stigma attached to mental illness and a severe shortage of specially trained mental health care providers — particularly in Texas — add to the problem.

As a result, people with serious mental illnesses are overrepresented in the homeless population, jails and prisons have become the new state hospitals, and community support systems are overwhelmed.

FPMHNP students practice group therapy

Five years ago, the School of Nursing established the Family Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program (FPMHNP) to provide psychiatric-mental health care at an advanced level to individuals of all ages and their families. This program is supported by a grant from St. David’s Foundation and continues to expand. Graduates of the program are prepared to perform psychiatric assessments and evaluations; prescribe psychotropic medications; and conduct group, family and individual psychotherapy across the lifespan.

"Seriously mentally ill patients need constant support," said Dr. Donna Rolin-Kenny, assistant professor of clinical nursing and director of the FPMHNP program. "Not only are our graduates supplying that support, they are helping bridge the gap in mental health care and thereby providing great value to the community."

Graduates can expect to work in a variety of settings, such as community mental health centers, state and private hospitals, eating disorder clinics, private practice offices, and jails. Even long-term care and skilled nursing facilities are calling upon the services of mental health care providers since geriatric patients may already suffer from mental illness or have developed mood or behavioral changes associated with advancing dementia.

It’s clear that job opportunities abound. "The most recent cohort were all employed immediately upon graduation and licensure and can expect to have very successful, fulfilling careers," said Dr. Rolin-Kenny.

If there is a dark cloud on the horizon for these future mental health care providers, it’s that Texas is one of a, albeit shrinking, group of states that still do not allow advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs), which includes nurse practitioners, to practice to the full extent of their education and training. The Texas Nursing Practice Act does not provide APRNs the authority to diagnose or prescribe medication under their own license. Instead, it requires supervision and delegation by a physician, which means that NPs must petition and, in most cases, pay a Texas physician to grant them delegated prescriptive authority.

"The scope of practice is very different across the country," said Dr. Rolin-Kenny. "The Texas Legislature has recently made incremental steps towards relaxing the current restrictions. The School of Nursing supports these efforts and looks forward to the day when nurse practitioners can practice independently, as they do in many states across the nation."