How One Nurse Makes a Difference for Patients and Staff

March 6, 2020

Jeanne McElhinney, MS, RN, BC, nurse director for McLean’s Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Inpatient Program, has seen a lot of changes. She arrived at McLean in 1986 during training for her associate degree in mental health at Middlesex Community College. At the time, she covered three shifts per week as a mental health worker on McLean’s psychotic disorders inpatient program before becoming a full-time mental health specialist upon graduation.

“We’ve evolved so much,” McElhinney said of her 34 years at McLean, most of which were spent working in the psychotic disorders program. Among the changes, she cited more patient-centered treatment, shorter inpatient stays, and increased value placed on nurses’ roles. Since she became nurse director in 2013, the inpatient program has grown from 28 to 42 beds. In 2019, peer specialists joined the team.

McElhinney recalled her career’s evolution and the staff who inspired her along the way.

“My preceptor, Frank Ryan, was an amazing mental health worker,” she said of her early years at the program. After a fulfilling two semesters working alongside Ryan and other staff, McElhinney returned to Middlesex Community College to obtain her associate degree in nursing and began her full-time nursing career at McLean in 1989. She stepped down to a part-time schedule when her kids were little. Once they were older, she enrolled in Regis College’s Upward Mobility program, where she obtained her bachelor’s in nursing and master’s in nursing leadership and business management.

Two women discuss something on computer screen
Jeanne McElhinney, MS, RN, BC, left, has been treating patients at McLean for over 30 years

Her nursing experience broadened through the years: in addition to her extensive inpatient experience, she has worked in a residential setting, as a visiting nurse, and as a school nurse. For the past seven years, she has been a clinical nursing instructor for the University of Massachusetts Boston nursing program. She has co-authored two research papers on the use of the restraint chair in the acute care setting.

In her current position as nurse director, McElhinney has 24-hour responsibility of the inpatient program, where her office is located and where she has an open-door policy. Patients and staff find her welcoming. She meets with patients if they have issues they want to bring to her attention. She hires and supervises nurses and mental health specialists and said one of the highlights of the job is the opportunity to work with them. “Most of the nurses are new grads, and mental health specialists are new to their role,” she said. “I like to think that I mentor and support them in what they want to do in their careers. I frequently hear back from those who have pursued careers in medicine, nursing, and social work who are grateful to have had an experience [in our program].”

Although McElhinney has experienced many changes in her career and at McLean over the years, she said society still has a long way to go in changing its perception of mental illness.

“We need to be more accepting,” she said. “People are always so supportive if you say, “My husband, my daughter, my son’s having surgery.’ Your friends gather around you, make a food calendar, pick your kids up. When you say, ‘My husband’s admitted to McLean because he’s having a psychotic episode,’ people just scatter.”

She added: “We need to find a way to be open that mental illness is not any different from a physical illness and be supportive to people in the same way when people are medically ill.”

McElhinney’s daughter has started a career as a civil engineer in Virginia, and her son is a sophomore at UMass Amherst. Now that she’s an empty nester, McElhinney appreciates spending more time with her husband, visiting her daughter, working with her nursing students, and working out at the gym. These days, she spends even more time at her job.

“I feel very fortunate that I found McLean 30 years ago,” she said. Patients still pop into her office to talk, which she enjoys. “And while I do miss that direct patient care, I also think what I do in this role really impacts the care patients receive here at the program. I think I’m still making a difference in their lives.”

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