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When it gives you that warm glow in your heart, that’s the nursing specialty to pursue

An inspirational story of how one student followed her passion into psychiatric and mental health nursing

By Kris Still
October 16, 2023
Courtesy of Kris Still
Kris Still discovered she had a passion for psychiatric and mental health nursing while she was a student. After graduation, some people discouraged her from pursuing one type of practice. “But I was determined. Mental health was my passion. I was driven and motivated to devour all the knowledge and experience I could in this field,” she says.

I may not wear scrubs or carry a stethoscope, but I am a nurse. While my colleagues care for the body, I care for the mind. I am there to help find hope in the darkness, to assist with identifying tools and support the skills needed to build or repair a road to recovery. I am there to listen, to just be there, to instill hope and walk along the sidelines providing encouragement. I am a CNA-certified psychiatric and mental health nurse. I hope that by reading my story, you’ll be inspired to follow your passion like I did.

Choosing a specialty in nursing was not something I had considered when I applied to nursing school. There was no driving force of wanting to “help” or “care” for others in a specific field; just simply a career straight out of university would do.

During my second year of nursing school, a little spark ignited while sitting in a class for my mental health nursing course. I realized that society is filled with misfits, societal outcasts, the misunderstood, and vulnerable people, who often fall through the cracks, who face judgment daily. Yet they could be some of the kindest, most empathetic and compassionate people in the room. I wanted to help them find their voice and rejoin society as an equal, not someone who is “less than.”

That spark led to a passion for mental health nursing. After graduation, as I prepared to begin my nursing career, bright-eyed and hopeful for a future of supporting and advocating for this vulnerable population, I was met with statements such as “Don’t pigeonhole yourself so early in your career,” “You need to keep up with your skills; otherwise, you will be stuck in psychiatric nursing” and even psychiatric nursing is “lazy” or not “real nursing.” But I was determined. Mental health was my passion. I was driven and motivated to devour all the knowledge and experience I could in this field. This was the call I needed to answer.

From 2015 to 2018, I worked in five different psychiatric and mental health nursing roles to keep that flame of passion burning. I worked in various psychiatric inpatient units, including in  intensive care and short-stay units and then community practice facilities, including urgent mental health assessments, crisis intervention, community reintegration and recovery care. In these environments, I may have lost some practice skills, such as being able to start an IV line or insert a feeding tube, but I strengthened other core nursing skills, such as communication, critical thinking, teamwork, attention to detail and compassion. Psychiatric and mental health nursing is demanding; like any other nursing field, shifts were never predictable, and care delivery was challenging. The day-to-day care you had to provide forced you to apply your knowledge, use critical thinking skills and be adaptable because a psychiatric diagnosis never has a “one-size-fits-all” solution. 

Over the years, my mental health nursing toolbox acquired skills in therapeutic interventions and knowledge on psychopharmacological and alternative treatments. Becoming CNA certified in 2022 was a tangible way to demonstrate my years of experience, continuous learning and skill building. It gave me a sense of pride and accomplishment and was a way to showcase my dedication and expertise in the psychiatric and mental health nursing field.

Sometimes life isn’t clear what it has in store for you. Sometimes your passions develop as you grow. My advice to novice nurses is this: don’t settle. You can gain and build your skills as you search for the nursing specialty that you are passionate about, that brings some semblance of joy to your work. Apply for those positions that spark your interest. You never know when a manager will see your passion, motivation and potential. Take that passion and let it guide you in becoming the nurse you are destined to be.

Kris Still, BScN, RN, CPMHN(C), is an outreach nurse in the community addiction and mental health services department at Alberta Health Services.