This grad talks mental health

June 23, 2016

Dana Blackwell, the first Bachelor of Psychiatric Nursing graduate and Dean’s Medal for Academic Excellence recipient, is excited to help change the conversation around mental illness


When Dana Blackwell introduces herself as a psychiatric nurse, the reaction she gets is usually the same.

“Everywhere I go, no matter what the setting, when I introduce myself and say I’m a psychiatric nurse, people say, ‘Whoa!’ They’re intimidated by the term—and that fear isn’t helpful,” says Dana, who is the first graduate of the Bachelor of Psychiatric Nursing program. “Mental health issues are a natural part of the stress that go with being human—our brains are complicated machines that need care and support, but the stigma attached to mental health is still out there. And it hurts communities and it hurts families.”

That’s why Dana is excited about the opportunities for advocacy that come with her profession.

“It’s a very exciting time to be in this field,” she says. “Neuropsychology and neuroscience are developing so quickly, and the way we think about issues like addiction, depression, anxiety and mental illness is changing and evolving—we’re speaking about these things in a much more positive and hopeful way. It’s exciting to see initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day explode, and the community at MacEwan acknowledging the stress that goes along with being a student. Being one of the many voices working to change the conversation is really empowering.”

Read more about our graduates from the Faculty of Health and Community Studies.

Making sure the classes of psychiatric nursing students that will come after her also understand their role was part of the focus of Dana’s capstone project.

“I chose teaching for my project in the ‘pay it forward’ sense,” says Dana. “I know just how much support I received from faculty members and mentors as a student, and having the chance to contribute and experience things from their perspective was really valuable for me.”

Dana spent her project working with 40 first-year students in their Foundations of Nursing Practice course, conducting lectures, leading classroom discussions and assisting in the lab.

“In nursing practice, we’re continually teaching our peers and patients, and learning from each other,” she says. “Being able to talk to students about changing the language around mental health, and how they can empower their own practice and their patients was a way to make a bigger impact. Those 40 students will reach further and make a bigger difference than I ever could as a single person.”

Today, Dana works full-time in a residential treatment program with adolescents struggling with trauma and mental disorders, and their families. It’s work she loves more every day, but she knows that there are many paths in psychiatric nursing for her to explore.

“I grew up in an agricultural community that values cooperation and resilience and I’m passionate about that, but I knew it wouldn’t be my career,” she says, adding that one day she would love to return to a rural setting and help to grow mental health resources and services in more isolated areas.

“I know from my own home community that there are struggles and strengths in small places. I dream of the day when rural areas have more access to services, more acceptance of services, and greater techniques and interventions that we can offer families. And I would love to be a part of supporting that.”

MacEwan University is proud to celebrate the more than 2,200 members of the Class of 2016. Congratulations to this year's graduates, medal recipients and distinguished award honourees.

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