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CU Nursing Associate Professor Kerry Peterson, PhD, DNP

Teaching Advanced-Practice Psychiatric Mental Health Care to Grad Students

Kerry Peterson leads the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program for CU Nursing

Written by Bob Mook on February 21, 2023

Mental health is having a moment right now for a lot of the wrong reasons.

For example, one recent study showed that 41% of adults in the U.S. experienced high levels of psychological distress at least once since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, more than 73.8 million Americans are experiencing mental illness or substance use disorders.

The COVID pandemic made the nation’s drug abuse and overdose epidemic even worse. Drug overdose deaths rose by close to 30% in the U.S. during the pandemic.

“Our country is facing a mental health crisis right now that was really developing even before the pandemic, but the pandemic highlighted and brought to light a lot of the needs around mental health.” – Kerry Peterson, PhD, DNP, Specialty Director for CU Nursing’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) program.

In November 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

Though mental health is pervasive in the national discussion these days, Kerry Peterson, PhD, DNP, has seen the storm coming for quite some time.

“Our country is facing a mental health crisis right now that was really developing even before the pandemic, but the pandemic highlighted and brought to light a lot of the needs around mental health,” she says.

As an Associate Professor of Clinical Teaching and Specialty Director of the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) program at the University of Colorado College of Nursing at the Anschutz Medical Campus, Peterson trains advanced-practice nurses how to treat mental illness and promote mental health to diverse patient populations and in a number of different settings.

“We teach students how to be psychiatric nurse practitioners,” she says. “Our students are taught how to treat their patients’ mental health throughout their lifespan.”

Growing acceptance of mental health

In many ways, Peterson acknowledges that the pandemic has been something of a boon for bringing mental health to the forefront.

“There was lots of innovation that came out of the pandemic and a broad acknowledgement that we need to invest more resources into mental health,” Peterson says. “We have come a long way but [mental health] is still very much stigmatized and there are major gaps in access to quality mental health care in the US.”

Increased demand generated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused the treatment gap in the U.S. to increase. In 2020, fewer than half of American adults with a mental illness (46%) were able to receive the mental health services they needed. Like most states, Colorado is experiencing a profound shortage of mental health providers that the PMHNP program could help address by bringing more mental health professionals to the workforce. Peterson says several of her students are already nurse practitioners who want to add mental health to their skillset.

“We have folks who are family nurse practitioners, pediatric nurse practitioners, midwives, and other NP specialties who want to get that psych NP training to be able to work better with their patient population,” Peterson says. “In general, we’re looking for students who are passionate about mental health and who want to make a difference. We prepare them to acquire those skills in advanced psychiatric assessment, diagnosis, and treatment.”

Peterson credits an exceptional team of PMHNP faculty with leading the program.

“We have nine highly experienced PMHNP faculty members,” she says. “We all actively practice in a broad range of psychiatric specialties and engage in mental health research, scholarship, and policy influence. I feel like we’re very innovative in how we’re training future psychiatric nurse practitioners with our holistic curriculum, engaging intensives, and our robust simulation program. We also provide excellent clinical placement opportunities to ensure our students’ success.”

About Kerry Peterson

A Colorado native, Peterson attended the University of Colorado for her first undergraduate degree in psychology.

“I was always interested in mental health and passionate about the field,” she says. “I’ve always viewed mental health as foundational to overall health and wellness, and I value the importance of listening and offering support. I think even back into my childhood, I was always the kind of friend others would want to talk to. When I started in college, I wanted to learn more about the brain, the mind, and human behavior. I’ve always been interested in that area.”

After volunteering in hospitals and shelters for abused women and children, Peterson felt a strong pull to nursing. She attended Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., where she received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN), her Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), and her Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP). She became a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) in 2010 and had a variety of clinical experience in psychiatric inpatient, outpatient, residential/shelter, and campus settings.

Peterson worked extensively with survivors of dating violence and domestic violence, and she completed a Doctoral Traineeship in Interdisciplinary Research on Violence. Her dissertation focused on dating violence prevention, and she earned her PhD in Nursing in 2014 from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Despite attending numerous schools throughout the country, Peterson considers Colorado and the CU system home.

“I’ve been basically involved with CU my whole life, so I think it’s a special place for sure,” she says.

Prior to coming to CU Anschutz, she taught at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs for 6 years and developed a new PMHNP program for students in Southern Colorado.

Peterson characterizes her teaching style as “caring and collaborative.”

“I learn a lot from my patients and students,” she says. “I don’t consider myself to be very authoritative. I love to have discussions and get my students’ perceptions on issues. I care deeply about my students and want them to be successful and have positive learning experiences.”

Peterson has served as specialty director of the PMHNP program at CU College of Nursing since 2017. In 2020, she was awarded the Psychiatric Mental Health Endowed Professorship in recognition of her excellence in PMHNP teaching, scholarship, advocacy, and leadership.

In addition to her role at CU Nursing, she practices at a shelter for abused women and children one day a week. She also serves on the national board of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association.

“The education and experience that I got has brought me to the point where I feel like an expert in psychiatric mental health nursing education,” she says. “I’m proud to serve our profession and to be involved with decisions that truly impact mental health nursing in the country.”

Practicing ‘self-care’

When she’s not serving in one of her many professional roles or spending time with her family, Peterson likes to run at least a few miles every day.

“Whether there’s rain or snow, I like to get out into the open air – even if it’s just 30 minutes out of the day,” she says. “It allows me to get in my zone and process the really hard stuff. When you are dealing with things like suicide and people experiencing violence and abuse, just getting out there and running is a healthy way to deal with the stress that’s inherent in this field. Just having that time and space of being out in nature is huge.”

Topics: Faculty