Winona State University-Rochester is bringing in its second wave of post-graduate psychiatric nursing students this week — just in time for Mental Health Month.

The WSU-Rochester graduate certificate was developed to help fill the growing need for mental health providers in Minnesota, especially in rural areas.

The first group of students earning the post-graduate certificate will graduate in August, and the second cohort of students arrives in Rochester for a three-day immersion/orientation this week, said Diane Forsyth, a professor in graduate programs for nursing at WSU-Rochester.

It’s a 15-month program. Most of the classwork is completed online, and it’s paired with 600 hours of clinical at a local clinic, followed by the certification exam.

Most of the students graduating with the post-grad certificate are already family nurse practitioners, who have limited ability to prescribe psychiatric drugs. However, the students Forsyth heard from said that up to 70 or 80 percent of the patients they saw regularly might have issues with substance abuse or other mental health problems that they couldn’t handle to their satisfaction.

Kathie Norkol, one of the students in the graduate program, said about three-quarters of her patients in primary care needed more help than she could give.

Norkol worked at a crisis center in Duluth that didn’t have any specialized mental health providers nearby. The nearest place had a three-month waiting list, she recalled.

“We retained a lot of those patients there, and they weren’t being cared for to the extent that I would have hoped,” she said. “You would never manage someone with heart failure in a primary care clinic, you would send them to a specialist. But because there are no specialists, you just retain them.”

Norkol’s post-graduate certificate will allow her to be that mental health provider.

“These people who are already in family practice are now dually certified. They’ll be able to bring a whole lot more depth,” Forsyth said.

Depression and anxiety are common issues that are seen, Forsyth said, and also might require multiple medication trials. The dual certificate will help students better understand what’s available and the related side effects, she said, which is better than trial-and-error-ing their way through finding the right prescription.

There is a huge need for more mental health providers all over the nation, Forsyth said, but especially in rural areas like those found in southeast Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The “national mental health crisis” has been compounded by the opioid epidemic and substance abuse, she said.

That and the lessening of the stigma around things like anxiety and depression make patients more likely to seek care, she said. But there aren’t enough providers to handle the need.

The problem isn’t of a lack of nurses, exactly. Forsyth said it’s gotten harder to get nurses into specific clinical specialties.

It used to be mandatory for nursing students to do rotations in areas like psych, a pediatric unit, obstetrics and gynecology. But as hospitals handle more difficult patients, those areas have become less ideal for training.

WSU-Rochester is also starting a DNP three-year program for students who want to specialize in psychiatric care, Forsyth said. That certification will meet the care requirements for any nursing degree from WSU-Rochester.

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