Nurturing good instincts

October 7, 2016

Holly Symonds-Brown receives 2016 Distinguished Teaching Award

Four faculty members received one of MacEwan University’s highest honours in 2016 for outstanding teaching and their commitment to education leadership. Raymond Baril, Constanza Pacher, Holly Symonds-Brown and Ross Shaw are the most recent Distinguished Teaching Award recipients.

IMAGE_HOLLY_SYMONDS-BROWNWhen Holly Symonds-Brown called the hospital to check in on a patient she was working with as a community-based mental health nurse, she was left holding the phone with a look of frustration mixed with disbelief on her face. She had asked to speak with the nurse caring for the patient, but the nurse said she didn’t understand why Holly didn’t want to talk to the doctor instead.

“That comment made me really sad,” says the assistant professor in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program. “It went against everything that I knew about my role as a nurse.”

It wasn’t an isolated incident.

“I kept hitting barriers when I was trying to help people who had mental health problems access the health-care system. It was frustrating, and made me keep asking myself what I could do to make a difference.”

Showing the next generation of nurses how they could integrate mental health promotion and screening into their practice seemed like Holly’s best option.

“I thought I could change the world by teaching, which sounds really naïve, but there’s still part of me that believes that to be true. We know that 80 per cent of people who have mental health issues are treated outside the speciality area of psychiatry—by nurses in emergency department and primary care clinics, by public health nurses providing post-partum care and immunizations, and in many other health-care settings. Those are the times when we can and should be doing primary prevention and early intervention.”

“ I thought I was going to spend all of my time breaking stigma, but I found that our nursing students are so ready and open … it’s really more about nurturing their instincts.” HOLLY SYMONDS-BROWN 

So about eight years ago, Holly swapped clinics for classrooms. Back then she thought it would take some convincing to help nursing students see that mental health had a place in their practice.

“I thought I was going to spend all of my time breaking stigma,” she says. “But I found that our nursing students are so ready and open to learning about mental health, mental illness, addiction and structural barriers to health—it’s really more about nurturing their instincts.” 

That’s what Holly set out to do—with a few bumps along the way.

“In the beginning, I couldn’t believe how fast the lectures flew by because I was trying to cram 15 years of clinical experience into 15 weeks of class,” she laughs. “It didn’t take very long before I learned that sharing every single thing that I knew wasn’t actually important for the students. And once I opened up and became less concerned about having learning happen in a certain, linear way, the more students contributed to the process.”

It made sense that approach would contribute to Holly’s success in teaching because it was also the way she had practiced as a nurse.

“I was always learning from my patients, and now that I teach, I’m always learning from my students,” says Holly. “Nursing and teaching are both relational—they are very much about thinking of the people you’re working with and the context from which they come. The parallel totally fits.”

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