A Deeply Rooted Commitment to Care

As a psychiatric nurse practitioner at MGH, Brynn O'Donnell '11 helps her patients attain health and wellness and breaks down stigma by educating them on the biology behind mental illness.

During her first year at Emmanuel, Brynn O'Donnell, PMHNP-BC became fascinated with brain chemistry and its connection to human behavior. In the years that followed, the biology major added a concentration in neuroscience and delved into the chemical factors underlying psychiatric disorders and "all the ways a brain can be sick." Her knowledge and passion flourished, and she set a course for a career focused on making a positive difference in the lives of people experiencing mental illness.

Today, O'Donnell works as a psychiatric nurse practitioner in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. As a member of the Acute Psychiatric Service Team, she conducts comprehensive assessments of patients presenting with serious psychiatric symptoms in order to determine their treatment needs. She also provides ongoing care for patients who remain in the emergency room for long periods.

In addition to helping patients attain health and wellness, O'Donnell conveys knowledge about what it means to be mentally ill. "I feel I have a professional responsibility to help my patients understand the biological components of what they are experiencing," she says. "It helps them feel less stigmatized." "I feel I have a professional responsibility to help my patients understand the biological components of what they are experiencing," Brynn says. "It helps them feel less stigmatized."

The sources of O'Donnell's vocation run deep. Growing up, she was inspired by the example of her mother, Ellen Conlon O'Donnell '73, who worked for decades as a psychiatric nurse in Southern Connecticut. Ellen, who majored in sociology at Emmanuel, was in turn influenced by Sister Marie Augusta Neal, SNDdeN, who as chair of the College's Sociology Department encouraged generations of students to address problems by engaging in critical analysis of "root causes."

When she arrived at Emmanuel herself, Brynn O'Donnell quickly found mentors among the science faculty, including Associate Professor of Biology Todd Williams and Biology Professor Bette Weiss, now a Distinguished Professor Emerita. "Dr. Williams taught medical neuroscience and neurobiology, which were two of my favorite classes," she said. "Dr. Weiss has a gift for teaching, and I made a point of taking the electives she taught."

During her junior year, under the guidance of Dr. Williams, O'Donnell completed a semester-long internship through Victory Programs, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting people living with substance use disorders, often accompanied by chronic medical or mental illnesses. Her internship took place in a 24-bed, residential house for male patients, where she helped facilitate the patient intake process and group therapy. The experience provided the first exposure to the patient population that she would ultimately care for full time.

After graduating from Emmanuel in 2011, O'Donnell earned bachelor's and master's degrees in nursing from Massachusetts General Hospital Institute for Health Professions and was selected for a yearlong fellowship in outpatient services at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Soon she was applying her expertise at Marie's Place, a crisis stabilization facility operated by Commonwealth Care Alliance in Brighton, MA. O'Donnell oversaw that 14-bed unit for two years, and today continues to provide care one weekend a month to Marie's Place residents.

O'Donnell credits much of her success as a psychiatric nurse practitioner to her undergraduate experience at Emmanuel. I am so grateful for my education, both in the classroom and through my internship," she says. "It helped me see clearly what I wanted to pursue as a career. For a college student, there is nothing more valuable than that."

This profile appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Emmanuel Magazine.

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