Therapists First: Columbia Nursing’s Laura Kelly, PhD, Discusses her Path to the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program (PMH)

March 17, 2017

Laura Kelly, PhD, will never forget the struggle of a family member who was dealing with severe postpartum psychosis. In fact, it was the stigma and lack of supportive resources surrounding the diagnosis that ignited Kelly’s passion to help vulnerable populations.  

Kelly now runs Columbia University School of Nursing’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Program and is an associate professor. A proud advocate for LGBT health, Kelly serves mostly LGBT adults in her New Jersey private practice and has published research on the subject. She also acts as the clinical director of the Perinatal Mood and Disorder Clinic at the Robert Wood Johnson St. Barnabas Health System in Long Branch.

Kelly came to Columbia Nursing last year, and describes herself as a therapist first. She encourages Columbia Nursing Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner students to understand that when it comes to psychiatric mental health, there are no quick fixes. 

What first made you get into the psychiatric mental health field?

I always knew I wanted to be a psychiatric nurse practitioner, and I always knew I wanted to do therapy. However, the practice of reproductive psychiatry is really where I have spent most of my professional practice years. I have an aunt who is a psychiatric nurse. She had a terrible postpartum psychosis after her third baby, and back then it wasn’t something we were talking about at all. When it happened to her and she recovered, she started a support group to help other women who might feel isolated and alone in her rural area. Through the group she met women who could not name their own children. They weren’t bonding with their children. It was really an area of interest for me after that happened to her.

Tell us more about your specialties in mood disorders and LGBT health:

There is a high incidence of depressive disorders and anxiety disorders in the first six months of the postpartum period due to hormonal changes. I do a lot of work with reproductive psychiatry, which is mostly women who are pregnant or are in the first year postpartum.  

Unlike when my aunt was diagnosed, today--by law--every mother who delivers a baby in New Jersey is now screened for depression and anxiety disorders in the postpartum period. If they show enough symptoms they are referred to the Perinatal Mood and Disorder Clinic. However, I also treat expectant women who have pre-existing mental health issues. New York does not yet have the same requirements for screening new mothers for depressive and anxiety disorders.

In my private practice I do more LGBT work. Quite often, the education that students and clinicians get in regards to taking care of transgender clients is not great. I think that is why I’m very concerned about and focused on LGBT health, especially given the current political climate. I think we should be pushing all nursing curriculums to at least introduce care of transgender patients. I’m proud that the school’s faculty practice, Columbia Doctor’s Primary Care Nurse Practitioner Group, is helping to lead the way by specializing in LGBT care as well.

You left a tenured position and a ten minute commute from your home on the Jersey Shore to join the Columbia Nursing faculty. What drew you here? 

Columbia Nursing has one of the oldest and most prestigious programs in the country, and I was looking for a change. A huge draw was the fact that the Psychiatric Mental Health Program is the only program, other than where I came from, that has a psychodynamic, philosophical framework. I really believe that is what makes psychiatric nurse practitioners different from other NPs. We are therapists first. The real role is psychotherapy.

Tell us more about the program here at Columbia:

We are lucky because other programs do not do therapy—that is to say--it is not a significant part of their curriculum. Columbia Nursing students engage in individual, group, and family therapy. They also engage in clinical work as well as take several theoretical courses to substantiate their clinical practice. On top of everything else, they spend 16 hours a week for a full academic year doing psychiatric assessment and medication management.

I love supervising students as they learn to become therapists. That is my favorite part of the program.

What do you hope your students at Columbia Nursing learn about psychiatric mental health?

I know that our students will recognize society’s push to have a quick fix, and there are many people who just want to take pills. That is not the way we treat clients. That is not how students at Columbia Nursing are taught to treat people with mental health issues.

Patients need to learn coping skills. They need to have a therapeutic relationship, and they need to be able to relate to other people. We cannot just numb away feelings so that people can avoid dealing with life. I think students learn that a quick fix, a quick pill, isn’t the answer. People have to work on feeling better.