Graduate making career in behavioral health

Photo of AshleyBy Erica Techo
The journey to nursing takes different paths for different nurses. For recent graduate Ashley, BSN, RN (BSN 2021), that journey began with a passion for mental health and has led to a behavioral health residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Ashley, who is referred to only by her first name for professional reasons, started her college career as a psychology major at another university before taking time off and beginning work at a psychiatric center as a behavioral health aide. In that job, her experience working with nurses, coupled with a new opportunity for a nursing degree, opened the doors to a new career path.

“I always wanted to work in mental health,” Ashley said, “and while working at the psychiatric center, the nurses really stood out to me. They have the most time with patients, and nurses serve so many roles—advocating for patients, providing therapeutic communication and ensuring safety.”

She was taking courses at Wallace State Community College when it joined forces with the UAB School of Nursing in the UAB School of Nursing Joint Enrollment Pathway. This pathway, a partnership with both Wallace State and Jefferson State Community College, enables students in the community colleges’ Associate Degree in Nursing Program to enroll the UAB School of Nursing RN to BSN Pathway at the same time, providing an opportunity to earn both an Associate’s Degree and Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the end of their schooling.

“I realized how much I cared for my population of patients, and I wanted to do more with and for them. I knew advancing my education would allow me to provide more for them,” she said.

The experience in the joint enrollment pathway was challenging, Ashley said, but worthwhile for the tools she is now able to apply.

“I have always loved education, and UAB School of Nursing helped sharpen my professionalism in health care,” Ashley said. “I learned the fundamentals of science and nursing at Wallace, and then took those fundamentals to UAB.”

In her current role at a crisis residential center, Ashley recently applied her knowledge of evidence-based practice to care for a patient with COPD.

“At this center, we rarely ever get medical patients, and this patient came in without parameters of where her SaO2 levels should be,” Ashley said. “I used techniques I learned at UAB to find an evidence-based article on how to oxygenate her, and then presented that information to my nursing coordinator. UAB is what sharpened me into that kind of nurse, one who can keep up with the ever-changing health care field through those practices.”

Beginning in October, she will apply her skills in a nursing residency at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. This two-year residency will expand on her scope of experience in psychiatric mental health through educational seminars, hands-on experience and time spent in interdisciplinary teams. A few of her goals for this residency include improving communication skills with patients, learning from those around her and understanding the intricacies of diagnosing patients, especially those with overlapping conditions.

“I have worked in the psychiatric field since 2017, and my goal is to become as knowledgeable as possible,” she said. “This residency will allow me to gain more clinical experience with different psychiatric populations and advance my education.”

And while her residency and current path align with a long-time goal of helping others improve their mental health, Ashley said she also recognizes the importance of strengthening the psychiatric mental health nursing workforce.

“At Wallace, I was one of the only nursing graduates who signed on with a psychiatric job,” she said. “I think if people understood more about this role and the potential impact, they would see how mental health applies to all of us. Every nursing unit and every nurse, no matter their specialty, will encounter patients with mental health needs. And psychiatry really needs good nursing.”

Following her residency, Ashley would like to apply for a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner program as another step in her career.

“I have a passion for advocating for mental health and helping people and students who have been in my boat,” she said. “Two years ago, I never would have imagined myself here. I am goal oriented and ambitious, but I also like to see how my experiences and future connections impact my path. It took me first pursuing a psychology degree to find a path that works best for me and that allows me to apply my passions.”

Last modified on January 25, 2022

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