Mental-health nurses in short supply


UI Lecturer Judy Collins’ nursing career is focused on medicine and the healing power of words.

As a former psychiatric mental-health nurse, she spent most of her days checking on patients and helping them emotionally recover from illnesses and surgeries through talking. Although she retired in August, she travels from her home in Davenport a few times a week to teach classes and work part-time at the UI Hospitals and Clinics.

“I’ve always found that’s it very powerful to talk about your life out loud, rather than just thinking about it and perhaps even obsessing on certain things,” Collins said.

In Iowa, officials said there is a dearth of psychiatric mental-health nurses — especially in rural areas. The number of members in the American Psychiatric Nurses Association is increasing, but there is still a growing need for these health specialists.

“In general, we are way underserved for psychiatric nurse practitioners in the state,” said Colleen Brems, an advanced nurse practitioner at the UIHC. “It’s going to get worse because a lot of us are going to get older.”

Collins, a Waterloo native, started her medical career in 1975 as a nurse who wanted to learn more than the medical or physical problems of her patients.

“When you think about therapy, you think about coming to someone’s office, talking for 50 minutes, leaving, and coming back again next week,” she said. “That is one of the strengths of the psychiatric nurse in a hospital and office setting — we also understand the dynamic of surgery.”

After graduate school, Collins began working at mental health centers in Scott and Muscatine County. On top of working with patients who faced medical crises, Collins helped nurses learn better ways to meet patients’ emotional and psychological needs. Within a few years, other nurses sought her advice for therapy — she then became a consultant for her colleagues.

Soon after, Collins started a private practice and eventually taught graduate and baccalaureate programs at the UI. When she retired last August, Collins gave her practice to a colleague.

Kristen Richardson, a former UI student and mental-health nurse practitioner, said Collins was very informative and helped prepare her for the career.

“Sometimes in mental health, there’s a jump to prescription medicine to support [patients],” Richardson said. “Judy supported spending more time with patients.”

Collins said she has seen many changes in nursing in the last 30 years, especially the expanding knowledge of how the brain functions. For many mental-health nurses, continuing education is key.

“I probably have 30 hours of continuing education every year when nurses are required to have 30 hours every three years,” Collins said.

Along with her teaching, Collins is the Iowa chapter of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association president and works with the state legislature for health care reform.

“I think there’s been something really great about every position I’ve been in,” she said. “I’ve never been sorry.”

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