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Advocating for Nurses, Raising Capable People

Raising successors—Bethany Phoenix twirling a lasso during her speech at the 27th Annual Conference of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, San Antonio, Texas, 2013. Photo courtesy of Bethany Phoenix.

SGI-USA member Bethany Phoenix is a professor at the University of California San Francisco’s (UCSF) School of Nursing. In October 2023, she received the Psychiatric Nurse of the Year Award from the American Psychiatric Nurses Association (APNA) in recognition of her career advancing psychiatric-mental health nursing and advocating for the role of nurses in America’s mental health care workforce. The World Tribune spoke with her about her career and Buddhist practice.

World Tribune: Congratulations on receiving the APNA Psychiatric Nurse of the Year Award. What does this mean for you?

Bethany Phoenix: It caps off my career advocating for and raising nurses. A lot of past recipients were recognized for working in big health care systems or academia. In my case, the reward acknowledges the way in which, through my career, I have imparted strength and confidence to others. This is something I learned from Ikeda Sensei. Receiving this award was a chance to publicly thank Sensei in my acceptance speech.

WT: Can you explain your work?

Phoenix: I’m a professor in a graduate psychiatric nursing program. As faculty in a practice discipline, you’re not just teaching and doing research. I’ve had a community-based clinical nursing practice, written grants, overseen the development of programs and brought in scholarship money for students.

WT: How did you get into the nursing field?

Phoenix: When I was looking into careers, my mom’s friends spoke about a career in health. I looked around and came across nursing, which attracted me. Nursing’s approach integrates the biological, psychological, social and spiritual—it acknowledges the oneness of body and mind—and it emphasizes educating people about their health, collaborating with patients to help them manage health conditions. 

In nursing school, I fell in love with psychiatric nursing, which focuses on understanding the experiences of people who are often misunderstood and stigmatized. 

I was working in a psychiatric in-patient unit when I first started practicing Buddhism. 

WT: How did that happen?

Phoenix: A friend I met in a class invited me out to dinner. He called me last minute saying he had something else going on. I thought, Wow—flake! But he invited me to come. It was an SGI meeting. They were chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. 

I went, and they explained Buddhism to me. I had thought religion was irrational, but Buddhism was very logical. Cause and effect, the eternity of life. This makes a lot of sense, I thought. 

I joined the chanting, and it made me feel good. I was more aware of everything around me. I felt more hopeful. I started chanting the next day and haven’t missed since—besides maybe when I’m on a plane.

WT: What role has Buddhism played in supporting your career?

Phoenix: A whole lot! My career is due to the fortune I’ve accumulated through practicing Buddhism. Byakuren (a young women’s behind-the-scenes support group) was great leadership training for me, too.

While working at the psychiatric in-patient unit, I chanted about what to do next in my career and decided to teach psychiatric nursing.

I applied and got my master’s and PhD. I was hired immediately into a faculty position at the UCSF School of Nursing. It was my dream job. 

After my first three years at UCSF, my grant money was running out. If we didn’t come up with a new source of funding, I would lose my job. My senior colleague didn’t have the bandwidth to write another grant for me and suggested “You write the next grant proposal!” I freaked out. 

An SGI leader, seeing my concern, encouraged me, “Just do your best.”

“What if my best isn’t good enough?” 

That was the problem: my lack of confidence. She said, “If it’s your best, it’s got to be good enough!” I realized that’s how I had to chant.

I chanted that my best will be good enough. Though I was the least experienced faculty, I led our team, wrote a grant, and we got funded. 

I’ve been there now for 26 years, where so many opportunities have opened up.

WT: What opportunities have you had?

Phoenix: I’ve been on major health care workforce commissions at state and national levels, always the only nurse on every panel. Nurses are amazing but rarely good at self-promotion. Many don’t know what psych nurses do. Being at those tables, I advocated for the role of nursing and spoke out to improve the quality of mental health services. 

I’ve also been on teams that produced research that is now widely cited and has heavily influenced the dialogue on nurses’ role in health services. And one clear way my Buddhist practice directly fused with my work was when I published an article with a model of how Nichiren Buddhist practice can aid those with mental health challenges.

Another opportunity has been working internationally. I helped establish a partnership between the nursing schools at UCSF and Soka University in Tokyo, where I and other professors have gone to consult and lecture. That has been an awesome experience.

I never would’ve had the confidence to do any of these things without my Buddhist practice.

WT: That’s incredible. What would you say is your greatest accomplishment?

Phoenix: Ever since the beginning, I’ve chanted to raise nurses who can humanize the mental health system.

Reading Sensei’s guidance and learning from his example, I’ve learned that if you want to make an impact on the world, you raise people. 

In every role I’ve had, my greatest accomplishment has been working to live with Sensei’s spirit and raise capable people. Helping nurses publish their first article, get their first grant, connect to health agencies in the community—promoting talented young people has been everything. 

November 3, 2023, World Tribune, p. 9

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