Rural NC community college graduates first class of psychiatric technicians

By Ivey Schofield

Struggling with mental health and not having adequate resources can be a deadly combination. Crystal Cornwell has seen it first hand. 

Cornwell’s grandparent died by suicide when she was young. She tried to understand the reasons, but failed.

Now, as an adult credentialed in mental health assistance, Cornwell understands how depression led to the death of her grandparent. She also understands that mental illness can be hereditary. 

Cornwell is one of six recent graduates who comprised the first class of psychiatric technicians at Southeastern Community College in Columbus County. With the credential, the graduates can work at hospitals, behavioral health units, group homes, memory care units and long-term care units assisting physicians with patient care that prioritizes mental health. 

Health care leaders say the new program is crucial for southeastern North Carolina, which needs more professionals trained to help people struggling with mental health and behavioral health issues, from depression and trauma to drug addiction. 

In Columbus County, residents outnumber mental health providers 690 to one, according to County Health Rankings. The statewide average is 360 residents to one mental health provider.

Meanwhile, nearly one in five residents of Columbus County experiences frequent mental distress, resulting in about five poor mental health days per month, according to the rankings, which are widely used to measure a community’s overall health. 

Last year, 35 people in Columbus County died of drug overdoses – a 35% increase from 2020. 

Southeastern Community College representatives say they created the psychiatric technician program because community leaders asked for more mental health training. 

Such skilled professionals will be especially important as Columbus County is poised to receive more than $7.8 million in settlement money for prevention and treatment of opioid addiction.

“We are happy to respond to the need in our community,” said Kim Worley, who taught the class. 

The first class of psychiatric technicians at Southeastern Community College graduated in July. From left (back row), instructor Kim Worley, Kisa McDuffie, Derrick Lewis, Karizma Washington, (front row) Crystal Cornwell and Victoria Stephens. Not pictured is Iyonna Mason.
Contributed photo by Kaylie Simmons, Southeastern Community College

‘Give them the utmost respect’

For almost two months, Worley taught the six students from Columbus, Bladen and Robeson counties about substance misuse, autism, memory care, intellectual delays and psychiatric disorders. She said the course is designed for people with nursing backgrounds. 

“Adding skilled, professional health care team members allows other professionals to gain control and support in their own workplace,” Worley said. “And the manner of treatment for those in crisis will be handled professionally and using the best available research to ensure a safe outcome for the person in crisis.”

Kazima Washington, who completed the training, said she learned to be calm, identify herself, look patients in the eyes and sit with them during moments of severe distress. Creating a safe environment is her top priority.

“You have to look at that person and say, ‘Why, that could be my mom or grandmother,’” Washington said. “Give them the utmost respect and love that you can.”

Before taking the class, Washington said she thought she understood mental health. She has struggled with anxiety and depression and has discovered that medication is the best way for her to manage her symptoms.

The course taught her that others regularly experience much worse, like hallucinations, suicidal ideations and night terrors.

“I’m not ashamed that I’m human and I go through things,” Washington said. “But if you think you’re having a bad day, wow, look at what other people are going through.”

Now, Washington said she likes to try to diagnose anyone she sees. 

Awareness of mental health is key, Worley said. All students of the psychiatric technician course also received national certifications in non-violent crisis intervention. 

“Mental health crises happen everywhere and sometimes right in front of the average person,” Worley said. “Any community member that can recognize and safely respond with appropriate interventions can help ensure a positive outcome for the person in peril and other members of the community.”

Accessible care

Columbus County is not alone in its lack of qualified mental health providers, said Dr. Tamara Baker, a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The reasons can be influenced by economic stability, educational opportunities, local connections and even local zoning rules.

“There’s a disconnect between those who are making these decisions and those who are actually on the ground providing these services,” Baker said.

Having mental health care available doesn’t ensure that it’s accessible for all, according to Baker. Accessible care means that it is also affordable, adequate, able to be reached and acceptable to the community. 

“If we start focusing on making sure that provided services are fair, accessible and available,” Baker said, “we can provide programs that are thoughtful and sustainable.”

Baker called the psychiatric technician program well meaning. But she said she was concerned about the lack of mental health facilities in the area that could hire the recent graduates. 

Washington, who has several credentials under her belt on her way to becoming a nurse, wants to get some job experience in psychiatry before continuing with her education. She saw one job opening at UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton and one at Columbus Regional Healthcare System in Whiteville. 

Washington applied for a spot at the Whiteville hospital. So did Cornwell. 

Cornwell, however, has bigger plans. She said she wants to open her own mental health clinic “to help get people’s minds on the straight and narrow.”  

Follow Ivey Schofield on Twitter: @SchofieldIvey

Southeastern Community College in Columbus County graduated its first class of psychiatric technicians.
Photo by Ivey Schofield