A summer up north: psychiatric nursing student seizes early opportunity for valuable work experience

By Melissa Nilan, Marketing and Communications

When Kaarun Sangra joined the Bachelor of Science in Psychiatric Nursing program, he was eager to begin working with patients as quickly as possible. So when he got the opportunity to practise his psychiatric nursing skills in his third year, Kaarun snapped it up; he became the first-ever student psychiatric nurse to be hired through the employed student nurses program at Dawson Creek and District Hospital (DCDH), in northern B.C.

Kaarun was hired to work on the inpatient psychiatric unit, which had previously only hired employed student nurses from the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program.

“I felt that being the first ever psychiatric nursing student to get hired for their psychiatric unit was a great achievement, not only for myself, but also for our discipline as we continue to develop and build new bridges,” Kaarun says.

Despite being only a third year, Kaarun felt sufficiently prepared for the work experience; he’d already learned a broad range of skills in the Psychiatric Nursing program, from clinical to therapeutic, and how to take a patient’s living situation and cultural background into account when developing treatment plans.

“I had to navigate difficult conversations, utilize de-escalation techniques and assess a patient’s mental status, while also empowering and working with them to tailor their care to their goals and preferences. My ability to do this work and to thrive within this environment was a direct result of the knowledge and skills I learned at Douglas.”

Read more: Psychiatric Nursing students find a cure for toxic work environments

A rural challenge

DCDH is a rural hospital, a 13-plus hour drive from Vancouver and about an hour’s drive from Fort St. John, the closest city. The unit has two nurses per shift to care for up to 15 patients; this high patient-to-nurse ratio, combined with the limited resources of a rural hospital and the unique needs of psychiatric patients, made for a busy patient load for staff – and a valuable learning opportunity for Kaarun.

“Nurses in rural communities take on significantly more responsibilities in regards to patient care than those in more urban settings due to the limited staffing. So working in this environment seemed like a real adventure to me, and I was excited for the challenge because I knew it would push me to be a better nurse,” says Kaarun.

Caring for Indigenous patients

Kaarun also worked with many Indigenous patients at the hospital. He says the Psychiatric Nursing program prepared him well for that, too.

“We learned in depth about the cruelties and hardships Indigenous populations have faced in Canada. There is a strong focus on  delivering patient-centered care by improving our understanding of how Indigenous populations view health care, their beliefs regarding mental health and medications, as well as how to integrate cultural practices.

“Caring for Indigenous patients in a manner that was sensitive to their culture and beliefs was an important experience that really helped take my practice to the next level,” he says.

Read more: This nursing grad wants to close the gaps in health care services in northern Indigenous communities.

Past and future goals

Kaarun is no stranger to the values and beliefs of different cultures when it comes to mental health. While growing up, he got a firsthand view – and didn’t agree with what he saw.

“My parents are Punjabi, and I grew up in a culture where there is a lack of understanding about mental illness – sufferers are typically shunned and viewed as weak. Seeing how this affected family and friends, I wanted to do something about it,” says Kaarun.

Kaarun graduated earlier this year, and now works as a registered psychiatric nurse on the Acute Inpatient Psychiatry Unit at Surrey Memorial Hospital. His long-term goal is to work in the emergency department of a hospital because he enjoys the challenging, fast-paced environment where critical thinking is essential. But before then, he’s going to make the most of his current role, and maybe return to work in a rural community.

“I enjoyed my experience working up north and still consider returning there to work one day. My current position is allowing me to really consolidate the skills I gained through my work experience with the education I gained at Douglas. This way, when I pursue other positions, I’ll be able to deliver an even higher quality of care.”

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