My Specialty

Psychiatric Nursing Instructor, Edmund Alfonso, West Coast University

Training nurses to tackle the mental health crisis

Edmund Alfonso stands in front of a group of students. He is wearing a button down, tie, and black pants, and is teaching.

Edmund Alfonso, RN, MSN-Ed.
Lead Faculty, Mental Health Department
Nursing Program, West Coast University, Ontario

Please describe the arc of your nursing career. How did you choose your specialty?

I finished my BSN at West Coast University (WCU) in Ontario in 2013 and was the class speaker at my pinning ceremony that April. Completing my nursing degree was the greatest accomplishment of my life. Sharing that moment with family and friends was incredible.

I was ready, and very excited, to provide meaningful care to those in need. However, at the time of my graduation, I had no burning desire to go into any specific nursing specialty. Among my top choices were ER, pediatrics, L&D and mental health.

Applying for a position at Canyon Ridge Mental Health Hospital was an easy choice because it was a seven-minute drive from my house; I had enjoyed my psych rotation in that facility; and I had several friends who were happily working there, so I felt I’d enjoy it.

It was at Canyon Ridge that I truly discovered my connection to mental health nursing. Everything about it drew me in. Mental illness is intriguing. No disease process has electrified my interest and curiosity more than schizophrenia.

What foremost mental health issues are nurses seeing today?

The big current challenge (which is long-standing) is spreading awareness and dispelling stigma, which go hand-in-hand.  One in five people in the U.S. suffers from a mental illness. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, someone commits suicide in our country roughly every 15 minutes.

Mental health just isn’t being taught and talked about enough to change these figures in a meaningful way.  Too many of us shy away from and turn our backs on people who are mentally ill when we really need to be turning towards them with helping hands. Support from family and friends has a massive effect on one’s ability to recover from emotional and psychological distress.

I’d love to see (and am actively advocating for) more discussions at all levels of education about stress management, healthy thinking, identifying psychological distress in others and how to access psychiatric support.

What led you to pursue a master’s in nursing education?

I always knew I’d eventually pursue teaching — for me, teaching tickles almost all of the same gratifying nerves as nursing does. Also, many of my role models throughout my life have been teachers. I always had the vision of giving others the same empowering experience. I completed my MSN-Ed. just as 2016 began. As soon as my degree came in, I applied at WCU Ontario.

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My excitement for teaching had peaked again, so I emailed both the clinical manager and the dean of the nursing program. I was soon hired as an adjunct faculty member, teaching mental health nursing in the clinical setting one day per week. At this point, something very unexpected happened: The dean called me in,  announced that they needed a mental health theory instructor for the term beginning in two weeks and asked if I’d be interested in taking it on. With a face of outward confidence and a large amount of inward anxiety, I agreed, even though it was not what I had originally planned. The position had just fallen in my lap and I either had to jump on the opportunity or wait.

For six months, I split my time between WCU and Canyon Ridge Mental Health Hospital. I resigned from Canyon Ridge when WCU offered me a fulltime position as lead faculty of the mental health department. I knew that this new commitment to education would require an immense amount of dedication, so I prudently chose to minimize my other obligations.

What do you find most satisfying about your work?

Contributing to the growth and success of passionate students of all ages is the best part of what I do. We learn, laugh and grow together. At the end of each term, students thank me for teaching them the concepts of mental health nursing and I see bright changes in their faces. In that moment, all I can say is, ”Thank you.” It’s truly my pleasure to share this experience with them and I wish them every success.

I often have the opportunity to see these same students finish their last nursing course and then attend their pinning ceremony. Seeing them in their white pinning scrubs on that stage hits me very deeply as I realize that I actually played a role in their success. It’s an amazing feeling.

How is technology impacting the teaching of nursing practice in the 21st century?

With technology, education can be provided more efficiently to a larger volume of students at one time. This means that more healthcare professionals emerge into the healthcare job marketplace sooner, which in turn leads to a healthier, happier community and a more robust profession. Fairly soon, all classes at WCU Ontario will be “blended,” meaning that half of the courses will be taught on campus and half online. In addition, technology provides us with more realistic, hands-on practice via the simulation center.

As an educator, I can confidently say that simulations are the best way for students to learn and retain clinical knowledge. Used correctly, this tool powerfully stimulates the receptors of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners at the same time

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How can simulation be used to teach nurses about mental health and treatment options?

It’s not too often that we find ourselves caring for someone who is suicidal or having a panic attack. Through simulation, we are able to immerse students in professional scenarios where patients are experiencing a psychiatric or medical emergency. Students feel the pressure of responding in real time as well as the complete experience of patient interaction.

They are able clearly see how some actions create wellness and other actions have traumatic consequences. Most of us can remember the mistakes we’ve made in great detail, so these simulations lead to unforgettable learning experiences by allowing students to make mistakes in a safe, controlled environment.

What recommendations do you have for those interested in a psych nursing career?

If you‘re interested in something, go try it out. If you end up loving it, fantastic! If you ended up not liking it, no problem — go ahead and try something else. However, by taking the chance, you’ve now learned more about it, grown as a professional and can go forward without regret. Every now and then, a student tells me they’re interested in working in mental health, but are also very worried they’d lose their nursing skills. If you move into a new field, your nursing skills are not going anywhere. Of course, you’ll forget things you don’t use regularly, but we have our old textbooks and the Internet to refresh ourselves.

All this being said, I never try to hide the fact that the mentally ill are, at times, a very challenging population to provide empathetic care for. Mental health facilities are settings that have a higher incidence of physical and verbal violence towards healthcare workers. However, the gratification it yields has been more than worth it. It’s difficult to put in words the feelings I get when my team gets patient feedback like, “I was so depressed and hopeless that I was going to kill myself, but you guys saved me.”

This is a patient population that is in great need of bright, positive personalities. If we don’t show them the light, who will?

As a nursing instructor, what do you think we can do to attract more nurses to become faculty members?

First, I think we need to put education under the same spotlight as nursing. Education helps people grow, improve and succeed. Focusing on this helps to convey the gratification of working in nursing education. We can also simply preach about the awesome benefits of teaching: never working on holidays; working just once a week, if that works best for us; winter breaks; fewer stressful/hectic days; hardly ever going home late; and more.

Are you yourself involved in or planning to pursue further formal education? What are your long-term career goals?

A Ph.D. sounds very appealing, but I first need to iron out exactly what I want to do. Some of my long-term options include teaching at the master’s/doctorate level; becoming a nursing school dean; working as a nurse educator in a large hospital; becoming a psychiatric nurse practitioner; or once again being a charge nurse of a psych unit.  Once I confidently decide on the best direction, I’ll be able to jump on the right educational path to get there.

KEITH CARLSON, RN, BSN, CPC, NC-BC, has worked as a nurse since 1996 and has hosted the popular nursing blog Digital Doorway since 2005. He offers expert professional coaching for nurses and nursing students at

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