Mental health awareness is at the forefront of this nursing program

Addressing the need for increased services, La Salle graduates its first class of psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners. 

By Rebecca Docter

When four-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles withdrew from the Summer Games’ all-around competition last September, she faced extreme global backlash. The gymnast later explained that she dropped out due to mental health concerns. “I’m still struggling with some things,” she told reporters following the event, describing her situation as “fighting with your own head.”

While USA Gymnastics supported Biles’ absence, users on social media platforms criticized the decision. “There were quite a few haters on the Twitter feeds talking about, you know, ‘Where’s your backbone?’” remembered Maureen Donohue-Smith, Ph.D., PMHNP-BC, an associate professor of psychiatric and mental health nursing at La Salle. “I don’t think we have the same consideration and support for seeking help for mental health issues that we do for physical ones. If you tore a muscle or broke an arm, there’s a lot of support for that.”


La Salle University is working to break down that barrier to mental health services with its Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) program, housed within the University’s graduate nursing program. First conceived in 2016 and launched in 2019, the 46-credit program (which includes more than 700 clinical hours) graduated its first class of students in Summer 2021. 

“I kept thinking to myself, ‘We really need a psychiatric track,’” said Patricia M. Dillon, Ph.D., RN, professor and chair of Graduate, RN to BSN, and RN to MSN Nursing programs at La Salle. 

Dillon is responsible for the program’s conception.

“I knew the need was there, and I knew there weren’t many programs, but I [also] knew I wasn’t the person to lead it because I’m not a psychiatric nurse.” 

So Dillon worked with colleagues Donohue-Smith and assistant professor Lisa Alberts, DNP, APRN-BC, PMHNP-BC, to develop the curriculum and obtain approval from the Pennsylvania State Board of Nursing. 

Today, students in La Salle’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program learn how to provide patients across the life span with a full range of mental health services—highlighting prevention, diagnosis, and management of acute episodic and chronic mental illnesses. They complete clinical rotations in multiple settings under the guidance of nurse practitioner and physician preceptors. Following graduation, PMHNP alumni are eligible to complete the Psychiatric National Certification exam. Once certified, they can practice as Advanced Practice Registered Nurses with prescriptive authority. Several alumni from La Salle’s Class of 2021 have already taken this step, with a majority serving the tri-state area.

One such student is Hanling Zheng, a recent graduate who now practices at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. Zheng chose La Salle’s PMHNP program because its flexible schedule would allow her more time with her young children. She also felt supported by La Salle’s faculty. “I thought, this is the time. I wanted to go for my master’s, to be more productive, and ensure the continuity of care for nursing [and assist in] the need of mental health services,” she said.

Upon entry into the program, many students are already working nurse practitioners who are seeking additional skills in the mental health arena. “It broadens their scope and allows them to be able to address those mental health needs that they weren’t able to before,” said Dillon.

Now in the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health services are in strong demand. With local communities in need, graduates of La Salle’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program have heeded the call by providing quality care to patients. 

“There’s increased awareness of mental health issues and increased vulnerability because of many factors that, over the last few years, that we’ve experienced,” said Alberts. “As a nurse, you see that on the front line and, as nurses, we think, ‘What are we going to do about it?’”

The answer for those involved in La Salle’s PMHNP program is clear, said Alberts: “We educate ourselves, we go back to school, we think about ‘How can I help?’” 

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