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Rare Opportunities in Mental Health

PMHNP students learn in new, state-of-the-art hospital

Idalia Viard with her preceptor, Cizik School of Nursing alumna Annie Benjamin at the John S. Dunn Behavioral Sciences Center at UTHealth Houston.

The chance to learn in the nation’s largest academic psychiatric hospital made Cizik School of Nursing the top choice for Idalia Viard, BSN, RN.

Viard started her studies to become a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) in her hometown, at New York University. When she and her fiancé began thinking about a future family, she researched programs in less crowded locales.

“I heard really good things about the program at Cizik School of Nursing, and it’s affordable,” said Viard, who transferred to the school when she moved to Houston in January 2021.

Her timing turned out to be perfect. She and classmate Nneoma “Cindy” Pustejovsky will both graduate in December 2023 with a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN)* on the PMHNP track, and they were among the first cohort to have clinical rotations in the new John S. Dunn Behavioral Sciences Center at UTHealth Houston.

The state-of-the-art psychiatric hospital and the nearby UTHealth Houston Harris County Psychiatric Center make up the UTHealth Houston Behavioral Sciences Campus with a combined total of 538 beds. The new facility is owned by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission and operated by UTHealth Houston. It is also supported, in part, by a $25 million commitment to the university from the John S. Dunn Foundation.

The center offers a continuum of comprehensive services, and Pustejovsky got a close look at how the process starts. Her clinical rotation in the Spring 2023 semester built on her professional experience as an intake nurse at a behavioral health hospital.

“The great thing about the Dunn Center is it’s a teaching hospital,” said Pustejovsky, who previously earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) through the RN-BSN track at Cizik School of Nursing. “I got great feedback from the attending physician, and he was very welcoming of questions.”

Viard’s rotation came during the Summer 2023 semester, and she benefited from the rare opportunity to work in a competency restoration unit. There, patients who have been accused of crimes but deemed incompetent to stand trial are admitted for three to six months for intensive treatment.

“I don’t think I would get to see this in any other setting,” Viard said. “Unfortunately, when you get involved with the legal system, there aren’t that many resources for you. The patients are really sick when they first come in, and there’s an urgency to get them better.”

Viard hopes to work in a small practice after graduation as she continues to seek a variety of experiences in mental health care — something she advises other nurses to do if they are considering stepping up to a PMHNP.

Pustejovsky works at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center and hopes to advance her career there after completing her degree.

“We have a huge population of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and a large subset of female veterans, many of whom haven’t received any type of medication or the support they need,” Pustejovsky said. She hopes to work with and advocate for women, who must often wait longer for admission since the patient population is overwhelmingly male and the hospital has no private rooms.

She agrees that anyone contemplating becoming a PMHNP should first seek out opportunities to work in psychiatric nursing and build strong coping skills and a good support system.

“If you are passionate about mental health, that passion will help push you through to be successful in this program,” she said.

*Because the National Organization of Nurse Practitioner Faculties and other professional nursing organizations are committed to moving all entry-level nurse practitioner education to the Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree by 2025, Cizik School of Nursing’s PMHNP program now admits students to the DNP level only.

Unmet Needs

1 in 5
Adults suffer from a mental health issue1

Texas counties with fewer than one mental health clinician for every 30,000 residents2

(1) National Institutes on Mental Health and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
(2) Texas Department of State Health Services, 2022

(Banner image: Idalia Viard, BSN, RN (R) with her preceptor, Cizik School of Nursing alumna Annie Benjamin (L), MSN, PMHNP, at the John S. Dunn Behavioral Sciences Center at UTHealth Houston.)

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