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Mental Health professional retires after 32 years of service

P’nina Shames has left her career with Nelson Mental Health after 32 years of service. Her career will be celebrated on Saturday. - Kirsten Hildebrand photo
P’nina Shames has left her career with Nelson Mental Health after 32 years of service. Her career will be celebrated on Saturday.
— image credit: Kirsten Hildebrand photo

This weekend a mental health professional with over 32 years experience in the region will celebrate her retirement.

P’nina Shames left her career with Nelson Mental Health at the end of 2013 proud of a career she was meant to pursue in a community she was happy to serve.

Shames discovered she had a knack for mental health when she sat in on a counseling session as part of her practicum while studying nursing at Selkirk College.

“Every person’s story is unique and individual and while there may be similar things across all stories, each person experiences their pain or traumas differently and to me, that’s where the art and beauty is. It’s an absolute privilege to be able to work with people in the most intimate way,” she says.

When Shames finished her nursing degree in 1977, she headed off to the University of British Columbia to get her Masters Degree. She started working at Nelson Mental Health when she was 37-years-old and says returning to her home community “was a dream come true.”

Within a couple of years, a death at the agency landed Shames in the director’s chair — something she never expected and it was a role she held until leaving work to become a mother. When she returned to to her job, she took the role of clinician, something she did until retirement.

In the early days, Mental Health operated out of the WhiteHouse on Vernon Street with a staff of a half dozen people.

“In those days the bureaucracy was small. Anybody in Victoria you needed was a phone call away,” says Shames. There are “many more layers” now complicating collaboration between professionals needing “to discuss a certain problem or get a certain answer.”

Early on, Shames worked closely with other Nelson agencies helping whole families.

“When I started working for mental health, it was cradle to the grave,” she says. “Mental Health is much more specialized now.”

Mental Health changed in the early 1980s when emphasis was put on people with the most serious mental illness to ensure they didn’t slip through the cracks, something Shames supported.

“For me personally, I like working with that client group best of all,” she says. “The work is very practical. You’re really focused on essentials of survival — roof over the head, food, making sure you’ve got your disability benefits, making sure you’ve got your medication, proper shoes and clothes in the winter...You really see results.”

Shames also found people with borderline personality disorder engaging to work with because of the challenges.

“They’re always pushing you away, not trusting you and if you can break through that and establish some way of getting that engagement, you’re almost home free,” she says.

The profession is a perfect balance of science and art, says Shames who believes in the “medical model” — that some mental health conditions require medications.

“You need to be able to work collaboratively with the medical sector,” she says.

Daily fresh air and exercise, mostly running often on her lunch break, helped Shames as she helped others in an emotionally challenging profession. It wasn’t always possible keep the boundaries she set, however.

“I always knew it wasn’t a good idea to bring your work home with you, or to bring the emotions you feel about clients home with you,” she says. “Sometimes their stories are just so impactful.”

Helping clients, seeing their advancement, kept Shames engaged in her profession.

“When I could see that someone was really making some progress — they were taking some of the therapeutic material and integrating it into how they lived their life and maybe turning a corner — that was really rewarding.”

After a rewarding career, Shames was ready to retire and spend more time exploring other things in life.

“I am already really busy,” she says. “I want to ski all the time and swim whenever I want to. I want to have more time to connect with family. I do a lot of volunteering but I want to deepen that.”

She has a cycling trip to Cuba planned for  this spring.

On Saturday, Shames celebrates a long career with colleagues who have been wonderful supporters.

“Everyone I’ve worked with has been so unique and distinct. I don’t know if I can emphasize that enough,” she says.

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