Openness is a way of life for Isaac Ndungu, 2020 graduate of the UNH Online post master’s Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner program. Originally from Kenya, he emigrated to the United States in 1983 to study industrial engineering and later attended the University of Massachusetts for computer science and civil engineering. After twenty years in the computer industry, a life-changing event triggered a career pivot.
“I was getting bored with the low level of people interaction in the computer industry when my wife suffered a stroke. Impressed with the nursing care at Mass General and subsequent rehabilitation services, I decided to change my career and enter the field of nursing.”
Motivated to accelerate his new career, Isaac enrolled in prerequisite nursing courses at Middlesex Community College and Northern Essex Community College. He was then accepted to the Direct-Entry Masters Nursing program at MGH Institute of Health Professions, where he earned a Master of Science in 2014, after which he passed the Nurse Practitioner board exam. Isaac completed his nursing degree the same month and year that his daughter graduated from medical school.
Starting his nursing career with New England Geriatrics at Holy Family Hospital, Ndungu worked with Alzheimer’s patients, sparking a long-term interest in mental health. He also worked as a home health care provider with Nizhoni Health Systems, LLC., witnessing first-hand the convergence of home, medical and mental health issues.
In 2018, he accepted a position as a nurse practitioner with Correctional Psychiatric Services in Massachusetts, a mental healthcare service for correctional systems. Treating the inmates of a large maximum-security prison, Isaac describes the collective sweep of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and recovering addicts that he sees every day. Suffering from lack of privacy, family separation, and constant noise in a highly controlled environment, the stress is evident in the mental health issues that populate his patient roster. Many prisoners from internal communities provide mutual support and group activities, but some inmates prefer the relative safety and consistency of prison life to the uncertainty of life “on the outside”.
While his patients frequently exhibit aggressive and verbally abusive behavior, Isaac understands it is a spin-off pattern stemming from internal turmoil. He cites the example of an inmate known for his violent and erratic behavior. Recognizing the unspoken unhappiness, the mental health team developed a plan for weekly visits to listen to the patient’s story, identify his needs and provide counseling. After three months, the prisoner became calmer and more stable, not only finding some internal peace but also learning to listen to others, becoming more social and open to building friendships.
“Establishing trust and listening without prejudgment are critical keys to successful treatment,” claims Ndungu.
Eager to learn more about mental healthcare and to obtain training that would enhance his career, Isaac enrolled with the online PMHNP program at UNH. Asynchronous classes provided the flexibility to balance his work schedule with study time, the one-year format made his time commitment manageable, and he enjoyed a rich experience of shared knowledge and support from fellow students.
“The UNH program provides high-quality content for professionals looking to extend their knowledge in the field. But the true value lies with the outstanding faculty. Intuitive and caring, they are committed to the success of every student. They sensed something was wrong before they knew I had contracted COVID, but because of their flexibility and understanding, I was able to catch up on assignments and graduate with my cohort.”
Firmly committed to his spiritual life, Isaac believes he is “here to serve others.” As a trusted and respected elder of his church, couples invite him into their homes to help with family tensions. He spends much of his time working with children, nurturing their path to a positive and productive life. Ndungu advises that, without a conscious effort toward resolution, personal problems can become a lifetime companion that casts a pervasive shadow.
“Kids are free with me because they can trust me to listen openly and without judgment. If I can help one child avoid prison, I will break a lifetime cycle of despair.”
Ndungu embraces the philosophy that we should approach each other with a kind and open heart free of judgment. This broad-minded outlook frames his long-term goal of working in a substance abuse clinic to help those who struggle with addiction regain control over their lives.
Fulfilled by his work and happy with his own successful family, Isaac is proud to see the families he counsels heal their rifts and become a stronger unit. Smiling softly, he says, “it feeds my soul to see them succeed."
Written by Gwendolyn Goguelet