January, 7, 2013

Learning the Healer’s Art

The time had arrived to begin my new clinical rotation. With trepidation, I made the drive from Idaho State University to the State Mental Hospital in Blackfoot, Idaho. I left the environment of a college campus with its purpose and promise and entered the stark, locked confines of a mental hospital.

In the 1970s, state mental hospitals were still large facilities warehousing patients whose lives had been decimated by mental illness. Medications like Thorazine and Haldol were available to treat severe mental illnesses, but the side effects were often severe, such as uncontrollable contorted muscular movements. It was disconcerting to see patients rocking back and forth and talking to themselves.

I entered the adult male ward and felt nervous when I met my patient, a Native American male in his late twenties. He suffered from schizophrenia. My instructor had told me that the most important skills I would be using in the psychiatric rotation were my “presence” and “communication.”

My patient showed me drawings of mystical women with magic powers, drawn with colored pencils. I wondered why he was fascinated with these depictions, and I found myself drawn into trying to comprehend his world. Each week we looked at his pictures and talked. Over the course of my clinical rotation, I began to see him as a person—not a delusional, mentally ill man. I found it hard to say goodbye to him when the 14 weeks ended.

Now I am a Brigham Young University professor and psychiatric mental health clinical specialist. I know the students feel frightened and apprehensive as they begin their psychiatric rotation, but I encourage them to use their “presence” and “communication” skills in addition to all of the nursing knowledge they have gained in school. I tell them to listen to their patients and try to understand the person experiencing psychiatric illness. Through their experiences, they learn, as I did, of the amazing strength and courage of individuals who are a part of this vulnerable population.

Linda Mabey, BYU College of Nursing Faculty

Editor’s note: For more stories of nurses working with underserved populations, visit The Healer’s Art: A Celebration of the College of Nursing on the third floor of the gallery.