The topic of mental health is an intriguing one. In many cases, one may notice when someone is battling something regarding his or her physical health because of external indicators; a person may require the assistance of a piece of medical equipment, or they may display signs of unhealth on their skin or hair, to name a couple of examples. However, unless an individual is actively behaving abnormally, it isn’t always as obvious to identify someone in need of mental care. You may have passed dozens of people who require the aid of psychiatric attention during your last visit to the grocery store and never even known it. Thankfully, there are professionals, such as today’s guest, who work hard to make sure these members of our community are noticed and receive the care and support they need.
Today, we’re honored to have Jenny Petersen joining us. As of October 2018, Jenny has worked for thirteen years as a psychiatric nurse here in Elko. Now, obviously, Jenny and I couldn’t go into any specifics about her time with her patients; however, Jenny was able to share some great insights into her overall thoughts and experiences as a professional in the mental health field! Before we hear about some of her perspectives on the subject, let’s learn a little more about Jenny, herself!
“I am a native Nevadan having been born in Elko and grew up in Carlin. Upon graduation from Carlin High School, I attended Idaho State University where I graduated with a Bachelor’s in mass communication. I returned to Elko and have called it home since 1995. Despite my degree in communications, I began working with an ear, nose, and throat clinic which joined with a pediatrician’s office where I worked as a medical assistant; it was during this time when I decided to pursue a career in nursing. In 2003, I started taking classes at GBC and graduated with an Associate’s in nursing in 2005. I was very fortunate to secure a position at Elko Mental Health, now called Rural Clinics-Elko, which is a part of the State of Nevada Department of Public and Behavioral Health. I have been working as a psychiatric nurse at the clinic for thirteen years now. I knew I would enjoy working in mental health, but I had no idea how much I would come to love the job I have.”
Thank you for speaking with us, Jenny! Now, when it comes to the area of mental health, not every client has an “extreme case,” which could result in the harm of themselves or others, but I’m sure you’ve met your share of individuals who have been through some rough times, correct? “I’ve had clients who have lived on the streets for the past thirteen years; they’ve never owned their own home or had an apartment, until recently. I’ve had clients who have been involved with drugs since they were ten or eleven years old. The stories they tell are so humbling. You and I have bad days but hearing other people’s bad days really put yours into perspective. From a small town, naive Carlin girl, walking into this kind of environment and hearing these stories is truly eye-opening to what’s going on in the world. I don’t think you can ever learn everything there is when it comes to mental health; something new always comes up. There’s been a lot of times when I’ve just sat and cried with my clients because their emotions are so strong from what happened to them; it just rips your heart.”
Jenny, can you talk about what’s it’s like leaving the weight of all those stories back at the office rather than bringing it all home with you at the end of the day? “That’s been a challenge over the years but something you get better at over time. If you don’t check the door at five o’clock and you take all that home with you, it affects you personally, and it affects your family because you can’t share what’s going on at the office with anyone. However, there are times when you’re off for the weekend, walking through Wal-Mart and a client pops in your head, and you just hope you hear their voice when you call them on Monday. It can be a hard transition to make because we have (between Elko and Battle Mountain) around one hundred and forty clients, and I want them all to be successful and safe, but I’ve had to learn my limits and establish boundaries to keep myself healthy.”
It’s good to know you’ve had to learn that for yourself, Jenny. I’m sure it’s tempting to develop a “Superwoman” mentality when it comes to your clients, especially when you do care so much about them. “People will come in and explain how they’re not feeling well and say we’re going to fix it for them! As much as I would love to have my magic fairy wand to make their lives better in an instant, it doesn’t work like that. People may come in and ask for the help, but they may not be ready to accept the help; they may never come back in, and that’s ok. Mental health professionals can’t fix people. We can’t force people to do anything. We can offer them tools to help better manage their day-to-day lives, address past traumas, and provide medications to decrease symptoms, but the real work must fall on them. If they’re not ready, they’re not ready. We couldn’t do our jobs well if we thought we were going to save everyone from whatever it is that happens to be their illness or addiction.”
The subject of mental illness can have such a negative stigma associated with it. Therefore, Jenny, what would you say to someone reading this article who may be on the fence about seeking help because, perhaps, they feel embarrassed, ashamed, or as if something was wrong with them? “We would talk about how they’re struggling, how it’s affecting them at work and how their family may be getting concerned. Even though walking through the door is going to be hard, acknowledging the fact they need to get some help to work through this process is going to be so important for the remainder of their lives. It’s going to help them personally and in the long term. We also have supports in place, so they don’t have to feel alone through this. We want them to be the best them that you can be. We all need to know someone is in our corner, supporting us, and cheering us on through the darkest days. Choose life, and it will be worth it in the end, even if all you see is darkness at the moment.”
For those of us who aren’t in the mental health field, what is one big obstacle you and the other providers in the area are currently working through as you look to care for so many locals? “One of the difficulties of living in a rural community is a lack of medical and mental health services. We need mental health providers! As our community continues to grow, more services are becoming available, but it’s still not enough to meet the needs of our rural population. Right now, if you come into our office, we’ll do a screening to make sure you’re not suicidal or need immediate attention. If that’s not the case, for us to even get you in the door to start therapy, we’re looking at February or March. Most of the providers in town are out two weeks to a month or more; our child therapist is normally out three or four months. All the providers in the area collaborate really well to try and get the people the services they need when they need it, but it’s never as fast as it should be. However, PLEASE don’t let that detour anyone from asking for help!”
Yes, if you need help, please seek it! People like Jenny genuinely do want to help because they love what they do. Jenny, what do you love most, specifically, about being a psychiatric nurse? “I love the cheerleading part of the job! We treat kids to adults; we’ve had five-year-olds all the way to eighty-year-olds in our practice. To see some of the kids who have seen the worst of the worst and have attempted, multiple times, to end their lives, graduate high school, have jobs and relationships, and excel at life; you can’t get more proud than that. Again, it’s nothing that we (professionals in the field) do; we’re just there to open the doors, give them the guidance they need, and cheer them on. Our job is to show them there is a light at the end of the tunnel, sometimes it may feel five hundred miles away, but you can get there.”
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See you around, Elko!