A Well-Traveled Career Path: Mental Health Specialist to Registered Nurse

May 18, 2018

Nicole Visaggio was a mental health specialist (MHS) at McLean for a year before she decided to become a nurse. She spent the next three years working full-time as an MHS while attending nursing school. Now a nurse manager, she is midway through a master’s degree in forensic nursing.

After being an MHS for a year and a half, Hannah Palumbo enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in nursing at Regis College, working per diem as an MHS while she attended school full-time.

Kenny Greathead served the patients at the Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Inpatient Program as an MHS for eight and half years. His dedication to becoming a registered nurse motivated him through his grueling schedule—school by day, work by night.

Transitioning from being a mental health specialist to a nurse is a common career trajectory at McLean, with a total of 24 employees making that shift since 2013. Of those, eight mental health specialists and one community residence counselor were in just the past year.

“It was a banner year for the number of new graduates who started out as mental health specialists taking positions as registered nurses,” said Linda M. Flaherty, RN, PMHCNS-BC, senior vice president for Patient Care Services. “It’s good for the hospital because they already have a commitment to our patient population and a passion for working with behavioral health conditions. They understand the mission and culture of McLean.”

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Working as a mental health specialist provides exposure to a wide range of professions, and some choose to go on to medical school, graduate psychology programs, or social work school. For Visaggio, her path was clear. “I decided to go the nursing route so I’d still have the same level of interactions with patients,” she explained.

The experience of working as an MHS proved invaluable during nursing school, according to Palumbo. “Just knowing how to talk to patients on a deeper level put me ahead of my peers during clinical rotations,” she said. “And that ability to communicate helps create trust and a better experience for the patient. My MHS experience also helped me with handling challenging patients during my med-surg rotation.”

Greathead, like others, said that while better compensation played a role in his decision to become a nurse, he also sought greater career satisfaction. “I wanted more responsibility, and I wanted to impact peoples’ lives more,” he explained. He is continuing his education by pursing his bachelor’s degree in nursing online at Southern New Hampshire University and plans to eventually go for his master’s degree in nursing, with a focus on education or informatics.

After becoming a registered nurse in September, Greathead stepped immediately into his role as a charge nurse on his unit, supervising the mental health specialists who used to be his peers. He admits it can at times be challenging.

His is a common predicament, according to Jeanne McElhinney, MS, RN, BC, nurse director for the Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder Inpatient Program, who worked as an MHS at McLean for three years. “I advise them to stay in close contact with their nurse director as they make the transition from peer to supervisor.” McElhinney added that having new nurses who are already familiar with the unit is a great benefit. “Already knowing the program means they can focus their orientation on adapting to their new role.”

“In light of the nursing shortage in Massachusetts, encouraging future nurses from the MHS ranks is more important than ever,” commented Flaherty. “And kudos to the nurse directors who help them in their career journeys by being flexible with scheduling so they can continue to work here and attend classes.”

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