Samuel Merritt University (SMU) Professor Pamela Minarik, PhD, has been fascinated by why people think and feel the way they do since she was in high school. She also knew from an early age that she wanted to travel the world. Those interests led her to become an international leader in psychiatric nursing.
This year, Minarik was awarded the 2018 Living Legend Award from the International Society of Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses.
“It was just amazing to be recognized at that level,” she says.
Soon after, Minarik also received a Distinguished Service Award during the 20th-anniversary celebration at Aomori University of Health and Welfare, one of the Japanese universities where she teaches advanced practice nursing courses each summer.
She traces her interest in mental health nursing to her undergraduate years. Minarik considered becoming a psychiatrist and pursued pre-med courses, but she soon found that the science courses had little to do with people and felt unsatisfied. A friend suggested she pursue a career in nursing.
“I found nursing school fabulous,” she says. “I really loved it.”
It was during her clinical rotations that she found her niche.
“I wanted to help people who were physically ill understand their situation and how to cope with it,” she says.
A few years after earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing, Minarik put all of her belongings in storage and flew to Europe for a planned six-month stay. She ended up staying for more than three years.
During that time in the 1970s, she took a job with the U.S. Army in Germany as a nurse in a drug detoxification unit. She said the experience expanded her view of the military — she had been a Vietnam War protester — as well as upending her assumptions about Germany, which she had previously associated only with the Holocaust.
Her affinity for Japan began when she was a graduate student at the University of California, San Francisco. She tutored two Japanese doctoral students in psychiatric nursing courses to help them navigate English language challenges.
After Minarik was hired by UCSF as a clinical nurse specialist to provide psychiatric mental health care and education to providers and patients, she consulted with one of those students on a case involving a Japanese man with a debilitating neurological illness. Though hospital nurses thought the patient was depressed, Minarik and her colleague determined that he did not meet the criteria for major depression and that his cultural background led him to be overly dependent on his wife. They devised a plan to encourage him to do more for himself and it worked.
“I was really glad how effective it was,” says Minarik, who published an article about the case.
In the meantime, her colleague created a new psychiatric graduate nursing program at a Tokyo nursing school and recruited Minarik at UCSF to train a Japanese student who would go on to pioneer the same psychiatric consulting liaison role at a hospital in Japan. Soon she was traveling to Japan to make presentations and helping to train other nurses to help patients better cope with the psychological impacts of physical illness.
Since 2003, Minarik has made annual teaching trips to the East Asian country and helped SMU establish an exchange program with Seirei Christopher University’s School of Nursing.
“I love the Japanese people and culture. They have so much to teach us,” she says. “Their main value is harmony between people and with nature. There is so much we can learn from them.”