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Fay W. Whitney School of Nursing

College of Health Sciences

Nursing Careers:
Psychiatric & Mental Health Nursing


Hillary Patricia Gillis, BSN, RN-C

  • BSN '04

What drew you to this career?

First of all, I have many family members that are in the health care field, so I followed them in that direction. I would also like to think that I got some of my interest in the field from my dad. He graduated from UW in 1974 with a Bachelor of Science degree in interpersonal communications. He also took many psychology classes and peaked my interest in the field.

Prior to college I knew of friends, acquaintances, and people in my community who had struggled with mental health issues such as anxiety, substance abuse, and severe depression/suicide. So I was never scared or leery of this specialty--quite the opposite really. I wanted to help and make a difference.

In nursing school, when introduced to different clinical areas of nursing, I always thought that the area of psychiatric nursing was fascinating. I loved learning about the mind and how people think and act and why they behave the way they do. Human behavior has always interested me, so I was naturally drawn to this area of study.

How did you prepare for it?

In addition to my initial interest in the psychiatric field, I took some extra psychology courses while at UW. I also had an excellent psychiatric nurse instructor while in the nursing program at UW. His name was Darryl Faulk. He exposed his students to so many different aspects and choices within the psychiatric realm. We had the opportunity to observe and interact with psychiatric patients at the jail in Laramie, at his private practice (he was an APRN), at the inpatient unit in Ivinson Memorial Hospital, and at the inpatient unit at the Cheyenne hospital. Professor Faulk had a zest for the psychiatric field, and he shared his knowledge well and with enthusiasm to his students. He  was a great mentor.

What do you like the most about this career?

Every day is different; there are always a variety of patients and different stories. I find it fascinating to learn about different psychiatric diagnoses, see the patients in person, and learn how to best interact with and help them. I think that people are intriguing and so is the brain. Humans are so complex; being able to have more insight into human behavior is a privilege.

There are perks to being a psychiatric nurse that are a well-kept secret. Do not be afraid of what is behind “that big metal door." It is surprisingly more pleasant than you might imagine. For the most part, we psychiatric nurses are not on our feet for 12 hours straight as are hospital nurses. We get to be part of a multi-disciplinary team, including psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors, and case managers. I learn something new every day from the team.

Also, another thing to consider is that our patients have to be “medically cleared” prior to being admitted to our unit. Due to the fact that we have to keep a safe unit, we do not have IV’s, oxygen, or any other advanced medical equipment or procedures. If you find yourself drawn to the nursing field but are not ecstatic with the prospect of dealing daily with bodily fluids, this might just be your area.

I have learned so many beneficial things by working as a psychiatric nurse. A lot of this knowledge also carries over to my personal life. Working in the field, you get the opportunity to fine-tune your communication and people skills. Over time, you gain the ability to interact with just about anyone and get a "sixth sense" (so to speak) on the person. Learning about people and being able to identify certain psychological characteristics is priceless. I have learned how to communicate better and have gained compassion.

What are the biggest challenges?

There is always the potential for being harmed, but we work well at preventing this stage. Safety is always our number 1 priority. Also, if you think about it, nurses in other departments are at just as high of a risk of being harmed (in ER or OB, for example).

Another challenge is being verbally abused by patients at times. This doesn’t always happen, but you have to be able to vent to your coworkers and not take it personally--again, something that could happen on any other unit.

Another challenge is that at times other nurses in different departments do not treat us or respect us as the professional nurses that we are. I believe there is still a stigma attached to mental health patients, and unfortunately the staff that cares for them as well. I have heard other nurses say, “You’re not a real nurse” or “You are a nurse, aren’t you?” in a sarcastic manner. The truth is that we specialize in the brain vs. the heart or the kidneys. That’s the only difference. Yes, I am a nurse. And I am very proud of it.

What advice would you have for a student interested in this field?

  • I would tell you to keep an open mind and follow your interest.

  • Maybe get a part time job in the psychiatric field prior to graduating.

  • Speak with your psychiatric nurse instructor with any questions or concerns you may have. 

  • Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing is an area of nursing where you can be successful only if you are compassionate and open-minded. 

  • You learn a lot in school, but on-the-job experience will provide the environment in which you can hone your skills.

Extra info about Hillary Gillis:

I have worked on an acute care psychiatric unit in a hospital since I graduated. It is an 8-bed unit. I have worked within the entire spectrum of mental health. We have adolescent, adult, and geriatric psychiatric patients. The patients range from schizophrenia to suicide to substance abuse, so I’ve seen a little bit of everything. I also help out with our outpatient behavioral health unit, where we use tele-psychiatry and also receive crisis calls.

I generally work three shifts per week; sometimes overtime. That work load allows me the opportunity to leave town often, as I love to travel and take pictures on my days off. I am always pursuing continuing education. I had the opportunity to attend national conferences in San Francisco, California and San Antonio, Texas, as well as more regionally-based education through my employment. I have my ANCC certification in psychiatric and mental health nursing. I also try to keep up on other certifications such as ACLS. I am actively involved in the American Holistic Nurse Association, as I find natural modalities very helpful. I often mentor students at my hospital and train new graduates. I enjoy my job and my coworkers.

Psychiatric nursing--to me--is having the opportunity to get to know, communicate with, and help different populations of mental health patients. We have the ability to make a positive impact in someone’s life. You never know if something you say to the patients could prevent them from attempting to harm themselves in the future, for example. I would like to think that I may have saved a few lives in my career. I am glad that I chose to specialize in the mind and behavior, which to me are by far the most fascinating subjects a person can study. I have been able to help others when they are at their lowest emotionally, and it is an honor. Psychiatric nurses take care of the patients who not only have given up on themselves, but who saw everyone else give up on them. To be able to be supportive and provide hope is what we do best. I feel like I make a difference.

Gillis staffed the Psych Booth at the 3/24/2015 Online Alumni Mentoring event. Click here for more information.

Hillary Gillis

Hillary Gillis, BSN, RNC ('04)
"I am glad that I chose to specialize in the mind and behavior, which to me are by far the most fascinating subjects a person can study. I have been able to help others when they are at their lowest emotionally, and it is an honor."

Gillis staffs Psych nursing booth at online mentoring event


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