Q&A with Dr. Zim Okoli

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Chizimuzo T.C. Okoli, Ph.D., MPH, MSN, PMHNP-BC, APRN, NCTTP, FAAN is a Professor in the UK College of Nursing (CON) and Executive Director of the Behavioral Health Wellness Environments for Living and Learning (BH WELL) research team. Through a joint appointment with UK HealthCare management team at Eastern State Hospital, he serves as Director of Behavioral Health Research and Evidence-Based Practice and Director of Tobacco Treatment Services. His primary research focuses on supporting evidence-based practices for substance use treatment (particularly tobacco use) among people living with mental and behavioral health challenges. He is internationally recognized for developing and integrating tobacco treatment approaches within mental and behavioral health systems as well as training tobacco treatment providers. He has served as principle and co-investigator on several grants from the Canadian Institute of Health Research, National Institute of Health, Kentucky Department of Public Health, and Kentucky State Department of Medicaid.

Dr. Okoli’s most recent honor is his induction into the Sigma Theta Tau International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame.

Dr. Okoli shares, “The idea of BH WELL initially came from conversations I had with the late Dr. Peggy El-Mallakh. We dreamed about integrating the existing mental and behavioral health expertise at the UK College of Nursing to create a program which supports research, evidence-based practice, and student academic success. My partnership with Heather Robertson brought this dream to reality. The work of BH WELL gives hope that in the midst of the incredible challenges faced by individuals living with mental and behavioral health conditions, there are researchers, providers, and policy experts dedicated to address these challenges and prepare the future generation of scientists, providers, and experts to sustain this endeavor.” 

“Many faculty in the CON have interest and expertise in mental health and well-being - working with the power of ‘ONE.’ Dr. Okoli brings leadership to a ‘TEAM’ who can exponentially power advances in mental health. His quiet and humble contribution to scholarship lies in the reality that he inspires us to understand the importance of basing our interventions in evidence-based science. His dedication to fueling evidence-based focus will produce long lasting help for the many who need help with mental Illness. His legacy with mentoring faculty and students is truly a gift to our profession of nursing,” shares Dr. Lee Ann Walmsley, CON faculty and member of the BH WELL research team. 

Q: When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I always liked plants and animals and natural environments growing up. I initially wanted to be a paleontologist. 

Q: How did you go from that to being where you are now?  ​

One day, I had a conversation with my mother who is a nurse. She said, “Zim, I believe you will make a good nurse. You should look into it.” So, I did and here I am.  

Q: Is there are particular moment or memory from your time as a floor nurse that stands out to you? 

My most memorable moment as a floor nurse was working at the old Eastern State Hospital, sometime in 1999. I had a patient who had been admitted and had been pacing for two days in a tight circle. He refused his prescribed medications and any form of care from the staff. When I came on shift and heard about him, I walked up to him and noticed he was limping. He had worn out his soles pacing barefoot, and looked noticeably uncomfortable. So, I offered to wash his feet. He stopped pacing, looked at me, and nodded. As I washed his feet, I thought, “There’s no place else I’d rather be. This was what I was called to do!”

Q: Why are you passionate about helping individuals living with mental illness stop smoking?​

Tobacco use is deadly! And it robs the lives of so many people. Especially people living with mental and behavioral health challenges who continue to use tobacco at nearly two to three times that of the general population. However, we are well versed in the science of tobacco treatment. We know how to treat people to address this addiction and have successfully treated many. If we can help people with mental and behavioral health challenges stop using tobacco, then we are greatly aiding them along their journey of achieving recovery. 

Q: How do you define success in your career?  ​

Success is knowing that you are exactly where you ought to be, doing exactly what you should be doing. If you are accomplishing goals that you set out to achieve, well then, that’s ‘icing on the cake.’

I like the sentiment expressed by Paulo Coehlo in his book , “The Alchemist.” It says something like “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only real obligation. All things are one. When you want something; all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”

Q: What do you think other people should know about BH WELL? ​

As a group of researchers, practitioners, and students, we are always enriched by and have greater impact with a diversity of perspectives. Please feel free to explore our website and see if we may be a good fit for you. We welcome you!

Q: If you had a 3-day weekend, how would you spend it?

With my wife at a beach with lots of exotic shells. Or with my family!

News contributor: Kylie Pemberton