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Canberran recognised for her work supporting the nurses who help mental health patients

Years of work to help improve the care of people around the country with mental health illnesses, and the nurses who look after them, was behind the nomination of Canberran Kim Ryan for the inaugural Australian Mental Health Prize.

The chief executive of the Australian College of Mental Health Nurses, Ms Ryan has worked for the college since 2004 – first as its first and only staff member – but building up the organisation to now have 10 staff and a buzzing office in the Deakin health district.

Ms Ryan was one of seven finalists nationwide for the new awards to be announced on Monday, an effort to recognise Australians who have made an outstanding contribution to the mental health sector, through promotion, prevention and treatment, advocacy, research and services.

The new awards have been developed by the University of New South Wales' School of Psychiatry, advised by a diverse and eminent board including chairwoman Ita Buttrose, Professor Patrick McGorry, artist Ben Quilty, cricketer Adam Gilchrist, and Dame Marie Bashir.

Ms Ryan said her work was focused not just on improving the education of specialised mental health nurses, but supporting the work they did for some of the country's most vulnerable people – including those for whom a mental health illness occurs alongside physical illness.

"I think it's really crucial that all nurses and midwives, not just the mental health nurses, embrace their role in mental health – we've got about 374,000 nurses and midwives in Australia, and my goal is really to make sure all of those people are more aware of mental health," she said.

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"I think we need to have all nurses more comprehensively trained to deal with these illnesses – there needs to be a greater focus on mental health in the nursing curriculum and we need more people literate in the needs of these patients."

Ms Ryan said one of the key things all medical professionals needed to be aware of was just to ask patients how they were feeling – that once a patient has been asked about their mental health, and the potential for an illness was acknowledged, it was much easier to address.

"A lot of people don't realise that about one third of all people who have a heart attack will go on to have a one-third higher risk of developing a serious mental health illness in the following year," she said.

"That higher risk can then stay at that higher level for up to five years for some people, but it's still very rare for a heart attack patient to be asked, after their physical treatment, how they are going, and some of these people, if it's not addressed, may go on to attempt suicide."

Ms Ryan was selected as the ACT's finalist for the inaugural awards, out of 130 nominations nationwide for finalists, and the overall winner will be announced at a special function at UNSW in December.