Western University of Health Sciences College of Graduate Nursing welcomed its first class of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner students this month, addressing a critical need for more mental health care workers in Southern California and nationwide.

Designed for nurses with a master’s degree in nursing, or nurses who are earning their Master of Science in Nursing degree, the hybrid Post-Master’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) certificate and PMHNP MSN degree programs integrate online learning with intensive face-to-face seminar weekends and clinical experiences in the students’ own community. Orientation for 18 PMHNP certificate students and nine PMHNP MSN students was held in early August and classes start Aug. 23.

“The Inland Empire consistently falls below the state average on the number of qualified mental health providers. In fact, the IE has about half of the number of providers needed to fully support the demands. The demands have steadily grown in this region due to COVID-19,” said CGN Dean Mary Lopez, PhD, RN. “The College’s efforts to provide more mental health providers is due to the general funding from the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development (OSHPD). CGN was the innovator of distance-based nurse practitioner education more than 25 years ago. The new program follows such innovation.”

WesternU College of Graduate Nursing Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program Director Christy Cotner, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, PMHNP-BC

Dr. Cotner began her nursing career as a Registered Nurse 22 years ago. She then returned to school for her nurse practitioner degree because she wanted to better provide preventative care. While working in internal medicine, she became interested in the psychiatric field and she felt she needed more education to inform her practice. She earned master’s degrees as a family nurse practitioner and a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and then earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree with a focus on how mental illness affects chronic disease management.Christy Cotner, DNP, RN, FNP-BC, PMHNP-BC, serves as CGN’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program Director. She brings a wealth of experience in internal medicine, family practice, mental health, and academia.

Cotner guided the California Baptist University Family Nurse Practitioner program to accreditation from the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education and managed and developed the ER case management program and gastric bypass program at Riverside Community Hospital and the medical home model program at Riverside Medical Clinic. She has worked more than four years at Riverside Psychiatric Medical Group with Robert Summerour, MD.

WesternU’s PMHNP program includes counseling and pain addictions classes.

“I wanted to pull that medical piece into the psychiatric field. That’s really how I want this program to stand above other programs,” Cotner said. “A lot of times nurses will go into the psychiatric field having only been a psychiatric nurse. They really don’t have that medical piece, which you really have to be able to rule out those organic causes before you can even think about the psychiatric causes. So you always have to be thinking about those underlying problems that could also mimic mental illness when it is really more of an organic disease. I’m excited to really bring that piece into the mix.”

The wait to see a psychiatrist could be months, so there is a need for more providers, especially in remote areas, Cotner said. Having more PMHNPs can also help reduce the stigma of mental illness.

“The nurse practitioner really can play an important role in this field,” Cotner said. “We really look at the whole picture. Our training is holistic. And that’s really what we need for psychiatry. We need a holistic look at the patient.”