“Learning to Sit, Listen, and Love” is the forty-sixth episode of The College Handoff. The episode features Dr. Deven Jennings, a nurse practitioner specializing in general psychopharmacology and LGBT affirming therapy.
Deven has felt like psychiatric nursing is his “home” and where he feels the most comfortable since first being introduced to it as an undergraduate at BYU. “For me, nursing has always been rooted in a belief in the importance of holding space for people’s emotions, and holding space for the difficulty of the human experience, and developing a healing relationship between a nurse and a patient to help them address mental health-related concerns,” he explains.
Passion is a crucial characteristic of Deven and the work that he does. One of the things he is incredibly passionate about is spreading accurate information and awareness surrounding psychiatric patients and psychiatric nursing. When asked what a psychiatric ward looks like, he says, “in reality, you are seeing the raw pain of psych and mental health care. You’re seeing people in their most vulnerable spaces. You’re seeing people at the lowest of lows. You see psych at its most extreme. And so for certain, it’s a unique experience, and Hollywood has tried to put a light on what it might look like, and in many circumstances, they’ve gotten it wrong. I think it does a great disservice to what mental health care is meant to do and what it’s meant to provide. Suppose there is anything that Hollywood gets wrong most of the time. In that case, psychiatric clients or clients with psychiatric disorders are violent, aggressive, and are at risk of harming society. That’s just simply not true. The statistics consistently show that people with mental health disorders are far more likely to be victimized and victims of violence and abuse than they are to be perpetrators. And so, really, a more accurate look at what society and mental health might look like is to recognize that people with mental health disorders are far more often victimized, and therefore deserve the love and the support that we as a community aren’t giving them.”
Deven is also passionate about all nurses having helpful and healthy views on psychiatric nursing and psychiatric patients as all nurses “are going to experience psychiatric and mental health care. It doesn’t matter if you’re in an ER or labor and delivery, med-surg, ortho, or surgery. It doesn’t matter where you’re at; you will experience themes and elements of mental health care. And so you do not have to work in psych to interact with psychiatric and mental health care issues.”
If you’re a nurse who doesn’t work in a psychiatric unit, it can be intimidating to address psych-related issues with your patients. However, Deven feels confident that nurses do not need abnormal skills to care for psych patients outside of a psychiatric unit. “You do not have to be an expert in psych to be able to be the nurse who can show love and kindness and acceptance and empathy to your patients. I think at the core of psychiatric mental health care, and really what is also at the core of nursing, is the ability for a nurse to be able just to sit and listen and to show love and compassion to another person’s experience,” he says. “I think if nothing else if nurses can develop within themselves the ability to sit with someone in their experience and just show that they care and that they are with their patient, I think that right there can just do a world of good for anyone who may be experiencing any kind of either diagnosable psychiatric disorder or just in pain or just in distress.
As a nurse practitioner, Deven has two specialties: medication management for psychiatric disorders (“the core of what psych and mental health addresses as far as nurse practitioners are concerned”) and LGBTQ individual therapy, something he calls “a deep passion of mine” despite it not being more widely known. “LGBTQ therapy is focused on adapting therapy modalities and skills and techniques to support LGBTQ people in moving towards goals of authenticity and acceptance,” he describes. There are three ways Deven and his patients try to reach those goals of authenticity and acceptance. “First is having compassion and respect for queer stories and queer voices. The second is having a basic appreciation for cultural competency. And what I mean by that is understanding terms, language, history, different elements, and aspects of the queer experience and queer culture. And then third is understanding the role that societal discrimination and minority stress have on the physiological and psychological well-being of queer people.”
One of Deven’s priorities is to educate himself and his fellow nurses on being more helpful and less harmful while treating queer patients. He highlights checking personal opinions and biases at the door as one of the most productive and effective ways of achieving this. “From the perspective of a nurse, you can have whatever opinion you feel like you need to have on any given topic, but the moment that you enter the role of a nurse, your primary responsibility is the care that you provide for your patient. And if the nurse walks into a space and enters into it with bias and prejudice and anger and misunderstandings and misgivings towards any community, and if that negatively impacts the care that you provide to your patient, then to be blunt, you are failing in your responsibility,” he explains. “If you have a bias, if you have a prejudice, if you have a particular perspective about queer people, that needs to be checked at the door, and it does not have any place in the way that you then interact with a patient with a different lived experience than yourself. So that is what that’s the bare minimum of what LGBTQ care looks like: it’s ensuring that nurses are aware of their own beliefs, biases, prejudices, whatever term we want to use, and that they check that out the door and do not allow that to influence negatively the way they interact with a patient. That is the bare minimum.”
Deven also highlights four steps in working with queer patients: stop, listen, honor, and affirm. “There is power in recognizing that when you’re in the space where someone’s lived experience is different than your own, to recognize that you are no longer the expert, but rather you are now the learner. And it’s profoundly, profoundly important that you stop, you listen–with real intent–you listen to your patient, you accept and honor their lived experience, and you do everything within your power to affirm them and who they are. That might look like understanding what they mean when they say that they’re gay or mean when they say they’re bisexual or pansexual. It might mean honoring and respecting pronouns when a non-binary or a transgender client tells you that their pronouns are they/them/theirs. It means doing your best to affirm your patient and who they are and how they express themselves and showing honor and respect for that part of them. So I think if there’s anything that a nurse can do, it’s to recognize the importance of stopping, listening, honoring, and affirming your patients and where they are in their journey. I think that’s the core of that.”
Unfortunately, statistics show that queer individuals are more at risk for mental illness and suicide. However, despite contrary belief, “it has nothing to do with the queer person and their identity,” Deven reveals. “It has everything to do with the world that society’s engaged with queer people and begin to shove these negative narratives at queer people. And that is profound. That is profound! Because what that means is that for us to decrease suicide rates amongst LGBTQ young people, the way we decrease that is to go to the root cause. Yes, the social structures and supports for queer youth are critical. Still, to make a lasting, impactful change, we need to teach families and small communities and schools and religious communities the importance of affirming and loving and supporting queer people where they’re at. Bullying, rejection, discrimination, and violence should have no place within a school. Should you have no place within a family or a religious community, like that, should not be there. If we can eliminate that, if we can just decrease that, we will significantly improve the mental health of LGBTQ people.”
If you want to listen to Episode 46 of The College Handoff that features the full interview and more insights into psychiatric nursing, the importance of pronouns, and how self-reflection can create empathy, go to https://thecollegehandoff.podbean.com/e/learning-to-sit-listen-and-love/ or anywhere you listen to podcasts.