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College of Nursing

Mental health champion

Dr. Phyllis Raynor is leading an innovative community approach to addiction recovery
by Laura Kammerer,

Although substance abuse is a national epidemic, marshalling resources to support individuals and families with addiction problems is particularly challenging for underserved states such as South Carolina.

However, a new faculty member at the University of South Carolina College of Nursing is addressing the state’s health resource capacity problem in two ways — by partnering with faith-based organizations and other community stakeholders to build robust community networks that support people with addictions in recovery and, as interim director of Carolina’s psychiatric nurse practitioner program, by training the next generation of advanced practice mental health nurses.

Addiction strips away jobs, relationships and purpose, which increases a person’s vulnerability to return to drug use during recovery because they have isolated themselves from their support networks, said clinical assistant professor Phyllis Raynor, Ph.D.

Churches may offer accessible, familiar communities for people in recovery from drug addiction, she said, but may struggle to provide support because they don’t know how to create a safe space for them or address their needs.

“We all have something to bring in terms of health and healing to our neighbor,” Raynor said. “The challenge is we don’t always know how to help, and often times when we don’t know how to help, we end up not doing anything.”

To equip churches to address substance abuse and recovery, Raynor is engaging community leaders to learn about their needs and find out what they are doing to help individuals with mental health and substance use conditions, particularly their successful tactics. This community-based participatory research method is a long-term approach, intended to create sustainable networks based on collaboration and strengths where all participants contribute to solutions.

During the first phase of the project, Raynor is cultivating her community network and building trust, frequently speaking at schools and volunteering at weekend church health fairs.

A self-described nurturer, Raynor’s curiosity about addiction grew from first-hand observation of family members who had successful recoveries. Although she has long worked in the nursing field, she initially shied away from a professional mental health role, instead volunteering on her church’s health team to help people struggling with addiction, including former prisoners.

After an administrative nursing career, she became licensed to see psychiatric patients in a private hospital setting. She went on to earn her Ph.D., pursuing an academic career because, she says, it fully integrates her varied skills and interests, allowing her to counsel patients in private practice one day each week, conduct research to advance patient care and teach and develop new nurses.

“I love teaching, and I love supporting nurses and caring for them,” Dr. Raynor said. “Being at USC is a great avenue to help nurses to really apply caring in a way that feels like caring to patients.

“Sometimes when nurses want to help, they do things that are not helpful at all, and sometimes patients do not perceive what they’re doing as caring. We teach students through specialized training how to care well, to line up intention with the right behaviors. It takes skill and effort to help people to make changes, to set goals, to improve their health.”

Raynor said she is excited to lead the psychiatric nurse practitioner program, which graduated its first cohort in 2017. She aims to grow the program’s infrastructure so that it can expand as well as enhance student learning experiences in the online environment, such as adding new clinical simulations.

In addition, she is helping to launch the South Carolina chapter of the International Society of Addiction Nurses to provide a platform for knowledge-sharing across the state, including more educational opportunities for nursing students.

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