Paul Thomas Clements, professor in residence for the School of Nursing, describes himself as prismatic. His North Carolina home office reflects that. It's adorned with crystals, notably a powder blue one on his desk made of celestite, alleged to increase understanding and higher consciousness and to provide a source of positivity in his daily work.
He is a forensic psychiatric clinical specialist, as well as a certified gang specialist and certified in danger assessment. His areas of focus include mental health awareness, trauma and grief counseling, bullying, interpersonal violence, and vulnerability risk assessments in the workplace. In many cases, he’s hearing about some of the worst moments in people’s lives, especially children, as he works with them to process their grief and emotions therapeutically. Like a crystal, Clements’s role is partly to disperse light in dark situations.
You live in North Carolina. Are you from there originally?
No, but my family is. I was born in South Jersey. I grew up in a farming community. My mother was number 11 of 14 children. They were an agrarian family and moved from North Carolina to South Jersey to farm. I heard many a story of them waking up at five in the morning, going out to farm, going to school on the bus, and then coming home and getting off the bus and farming.
What made you become a nurse?
I originally wanted to be a chemist. In high school, I took extra chemistry classes and graduated when I was 16. I took extra AP classes in chemistry and physics and started college when I was 16 and a half, which was a huge mistake because I was not ready to go. But I had straight A's in chemistry and physics. I decided I was [more of] a people person, so I switched over to psychology.
My mom found out a friend of hers worked in the hospital and got me a job as a unit clerk. Word had gotten around I was the best unit clerk in the world. The people in the locked mental health unit asked if I wanted to come work with them. Next thing I know, they were training me to be a mental health technician, as well as a unit clerk. I found I had this natural knack to work with people in this psychiatric unit.
I was exposed to all these different professions, and I whittled it down. I wanted to be a social worker, a nurse, or a physician psychiatrist. I started asking on my time off if could I spend time with each of them. [I felt] psychiatrists didn't spend enough time. And social workers were all about systems and I wasn't into systems. So, I did my associate’s, bachelor’s, and master’s in nursing in five years. I went straight through right into my doctoral program.
What made you want to help mental health patients?
These were people who were marginalized by society. One of the things I talk with my students about whenever they talk about mental health is that we're still fighting for parity and equity for funding for comprehensive care and research. I merged that with the forensic arena; people with mental health issues tend to become psychotic and may do things that are illegal.
For example, they may assault people or they destroy things — and where do they go? They go to prison and they don't get any mental health care, but then they are committed to the psychiatric hospital where they get the care they need. And then they're discharged but don't get the aftercare they need. Then they commit criminal acts again and they go to prison.
The worst place for somebody with a psychiatric disorder is in prison. It is a vicious circle. Many of these people end up homeless. I have a big heart for them and for how they are often lost in “the system.”
There's the act, the art, and the science of nursing. You truly have to stop and listen to people who have psychiatric disorders and “listen between the lines” if what they are saying.
Even though you live in North Carolina, you still have an impact on UNLV Nursing’s role in the Las Vegas community. Can you talk about the new partnership you helped secure?
I connected with a local grief counseling center called Adam’s Place. The facility is a nonprofit company that provides support to grieving children, teenagers, and families in safe and confidential settings. Through this partnership via our community nursing program, our nursing students will get to experience grief counseling in a real-world environment, learning how to interact with patients suffering from similar pain.
What's the biggest lesson you've learned in the field?
People who have experienced severe trauma as victims are ultimately able to successfully reinvest into enjoyable and productive lives.
When people visit Asheville, where do you suggest they go?
Take a ride along the Blue Ridge Parkway, especially in autumn when the leaves make the Great Smokey Mountains just amazing with the red, orange, and yellow colors.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
Walking my black Labrador, Smoke, several times a day and running into our "neighbors": the turkeys, the bears, and the bunnies. I also collect rare hand-painted Delft tiles that were originally used in kitchens and other open fire areas in old European homes. Once the homes were torn town, the tiles were originally discarded. They have now become a rare historic commodity.