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The advice to nurses wishing to ‘dip their toe’ into research is to seek out a mentor, says one of Australia’s leading mental health nurse academics recently awarded a top accolade in her field.

“Ethics and grants applications can be quite daunting. Find someone experienced in that area that can help you. Frontline clinical research is so important and I would encourage clinicians to do it,” University of Newcastle’s Professor Brenda Happell told the ANMJ.

Professor Happell recently won the 2019 MHS Exceptional Contribution Award at the Mental Health Service Awards of Australia and New Zealand for her exceptional contribution to mental health. The awards recognise and encourage best practice, excellence and innovation in mental health service delivery.

Professor Happell was recognised for being “an inspiring and innovative mentor, contributing with excellence to mental health nurse education and consumer participation, research and practice at a national and international level.”

Professor Brenda Happell

“This award is not just a personal accolade, but one that recognises the importance of mental health nursing and consumer participation, which I have advocated for and researched with passion for many years,” she said.

A registered nurse with specialist qualifications in mental health nursing, Professor Happell spent nearly three decades in leadership, teaching and researching roles in higher education. She is an active researcher with a strong track record in publication, a former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Mental Health Nursing and Associate Editor of Issues in Mental Health Nursing.

“My great passion is research – it’s what I have done for the past 20 plus years.”

While a passionate advocate for mental health nursing, Professor Happell says she took a little while to find my place in terms of my career”.

“I completed an Arts Degree after school. I worked in welfare – youth welfare for one and a half years before I decided to do nursing. One of the motivations was that I thought it would be a good passport to travel the world. I did my general nursing first. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I enjoyed it – but it wasn’t quite me.

“Then I started working in a drug and alcohol service, I had always had an interest in mental health and sociology – in how people think and how they interact with society. I felt that part of my skill set was missing; I wanted to better understand people and what led them to use substances.”

Working at an inpatient detox unit in Melbourne dealing with people with serious addiction led Professor Happell to mental health and psychiatric nursing. She did her post basic training at Royal Park Hospital, “I found I really did love mental health nursing”.

Her first academic position was at Victorian College, now part of Deakin University, where she implemented a direct entry mental health nursing program. “I enjoyed that immensely. I didn’t just want an ordinary job. It wasn’t me, I wanted to feel like I was making a difference as well.”

Throughout her career, Professor Happell has been a passionate advocate for mental health nursing; consumer participation – the active involvement of consumers in decisions about health services; and improving physical health for people experiencing mental illness.

In 2000, she led the implementation of the first known mental health consumer academic position worldwide.

Professor Happell’s work around consumer participation in nursing education is renowned worldwide. She was the Australian lead investigator of a research project undertaken with five countries in Europe implementing consumer participation in their nursing education. Her work in this area has inspired similar positions in Australia and internationally.

“Consumer involvement in the education of health professionals – it’s the most powerful learning technique way to teach nursing students. We see a profound change in students.

“It offers a different perspective for students to directly hear about mental health through consumers’ experiences and the knowledge and expertise they have gained through that experience. They bring something even the very best nursing academic cannot bring”.

Students adapt really quickly to confront and challenge the stigma and views they may have held around mental health.

“Not all students will go into mental health but it’s really important they know how to engage someone with mental health issues – it makes them a better person because of the understanding that comes with it.”

Professor Happell now works part time at the University of Newcastle. She is continuing with projects close to her heart. She is Chief Investigator for a National Health and Medical Research Council grant for her research Improving the cardiometabolic health of people with psychosis: the physical health nurse consultant service, a nurse-led initiative.

The project based in community mental health, is aimed for people accessing mental health services. She hopes that an outcome of this project will be that consumers receive physical health assessment, monitoring and treatment to help prevent and minimise their physical health issues, from their very first contact with the service.

Professor Brenda Happell receiving the Australian College of Mental Health Nursing life membership

“There are so many barriers in the system for people with mental health issues – there is financial cost, transport, motivation levels – there is no one stop shop for them to make it easier. Often consumers have to return to access additional services, whether it’s to have bloods or see a dietician. They encounter a lot of barriers instead of a seamless trajectory of care.”

Brenda is also an Equally Well ambassador promoting Equally Well ( in recognition of her work in the physical health sphere, and her broader commitment to addressing this unacceptable health inequity.

Additionally, she has also been a Board Director at the Australian College of Mental Health Nursing for nine years and was awarded life membership in October. Last year, she was also the recipient of the inaugural Victorian Mental Illness Awareness Council Lifetime Ally Award.