Professor Susie Adams named Psychiatric Nurse of the Year

School of Nursing professor Susie Adams standing in front of glass walled conference room

by Matt Batcheldor

Susie Adams, PhD, FAANP, FAAN, professor of Nursing at the Vanderbilt University School of Nursing has been named 2019 Psychiatric Nurse of the Year by the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA). The award will be presented Oct. 2 at the annual APNA convention in New Orleans.

APNA is the largest organization of psychiatric mental health nurses in the world, with more than 12,500 members. The Nurse of the Year award recognizes an APNA member who demonstrates vision, perseverance, dedication, initiative and facilitation in delivery of mental health services to individuals, families and communities.

“It’s really kind of humbling,” Adams said. “I have felt very privileged over the years to be active at a national level. APNA has grown tremendously from when I first became active in the organization in 1999, when there were about 1,200 members. They are now the voice of psychiatric nursing nationally.” She served the professional organization in various roles, including as APNA president from 2015 to 2016.

Adams is currently VUSN’s Faculty Scholar for Community Engaged Behavioral Health, contributing her talents in teaching, clinical care, community outreach and research on campus, locally and nationally.

As academic director of Vanderbilt’s psychiatric program for two decades, Adams transitioned its clinical nurse specialist program into one of the first three psychiatric nurse practitioner programs in the nation. She was also instrumental in moving the program to a hybrid educational format that used distance learning, the first at VUSN. The hybrid format opened access for nurses in rural and distant areas to obtain psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner education. Under her direction, VUSN’s PMHNP program rose to national prominence. It is now ranked No. 2 by U.S. News and World Report.

In addition to her academic role, Adams is recognized as a national expert on substance abuse and mental health disorders. In 2014, she transitioned to the newly created Faculty Scholar role, in which she acts as a liaison between community nonprofit mental health agencies and the School of Nursing.

Drawn to psychology
A native of rural Missouri near St. Louis, Adams earned her Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Valparaiso University in Indiana. It was there that she discovered a passion for mental health care.

“When I was an undergraduate, I initially was a declared biology major,” she said. “But working in the labs, I realized what I missed was the connection with people.”

She joined the university’s nursing program, and had a life-changing undergraduate rotation in psychiatric nursing. During the rotation, she followed patients weekly at the state psychiatric hospital, spent two weeks at an inpatient psychiatric unit in a community hospital, and visited patients in their homes, where she learned the barriers to health care for disadvantaged people with mental health disorders.

Early on, she began to understand the importance of integrated health care — that is, the incorporation of mental health care into primary care, and vice versa. She would later strongly integrate that concept into Vanderbilt’s curriculum.

She also learned the power of connection in treating individuals with mental health and substance use disorders, who often isolate themselves due to the stigma of addiction and other mental health disorders. “One of the most powerful interventions beyond medication is treating individuals with respect and helping them find meaning and purpose in life,” she said.

Adams went on to the University of California, San Francisco, where she received a Master’s of Science in Nursing degree. She spent 20 years primarily as a clinician working in the Veterans Administration in Palo Alto, California, then in private sector roles in Richmond, Virginia, and Jackson, Tennessee.

When she came to Vanderbilt in 1995, she only planned to stay for a couple of years. “I didn’t think I would teach,” she said. “I didn’t think I would get a PhD and I didn’t think I would be working in addictions.”

Nearly twenty-five years later, she happily remains at Vanderbilt and has received her PhD from the University of Kentucky. Her work with addiction led her to be the only nurse asked to contribute to the 2017 National Academy of Medicine special publication on the opioid epidemic.

Triple force: research, clinical and teaching
Adams’ research has focused on trauma-informed intervention strategies to reduce alcohol and drug related problems for individuals and families, integrated models of primary care and behavioral health care delivery, and delivering SBIRT training (Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment for Alcohol and Substance Abuse), an evidence-based practice used to reduce and prevent substance abuse.

Her long teaching career has included courses on group and family therapy and the psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner clinical practice courses. She continues to offer guest lectures in the Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program, which is now led by Dawn Vanderhoef, PhD, DNP, MSN’00, FAANP, associate professor of Nursing. Vanderhoef was one of the people who nominated Adams for the psychiatric nurse of the year award.

“She is a visionary who tirelessly implements innovative solutions and develops programs with the goal of improving care for patients,” Vanderhoef said in her nomination letter.

For 20 years, Adams has served in a private OB/GYN clinical practice in collaboration with Stephen Staggs, MD, providing mental health care to patients with postpartum or perinatal depression. This innovative integration of behavioral health care into an OB/GYN practice has now expanded into providing general mental health care.

In her role as VUSN Faculty Scholar for Community Engaged Behavioral Health, she functions as a bridge from Vanderbilt to many community service agencies, such as Dismas House for men re-entering the community from incarceration, and The Next Door and Renewal House, providing trauma-informed substance abuse and mental health treatment for women, including pregnant and parenting women.

She serves on the Vanderbilt Community Engaged Research Core and mentors doctoral nursing students and medical students in community-based research and quality improvement projects. It’s estimated that over her 30-year career as a nursing educator, she launched over 550 PMHNPs and mentored more than 40 DNP students, all of whom have a long lasting national impact on provision of quality behavioral health care.

“I have been so fortunate with the learning experiences that I’ve had during my career, both in formal academic settings and in the practice, teaching, and research roles that I’ve had,” she said. “I still love what I do. I learn every day from students, patients, and colleagues. That’s what makes Vanderbilt such a special place.”