Susan Zannoni, DNP ‘15: Horizon Health Clinical Director of Children Services

Published August 15, 2022

Susan Zannoni, DNP ‘15, recently came across an entry in her childhood diary where she wrote: “I want to be a nurse and work with young children.” 

As the clinical director of children’s services at Horizon Health, she can confidently say those dreams came true. 

The road to becoming a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner

“I would not be where I am today without the help and education from UB SON. The school saw something in me and guided me through my educational path. Not only did my education impact my career choices, but the faculty believed in me. ”
Susan Zannoni, DNP '15, Horizon Health Clinical Director of Children's Services

Zannoni began working toward her aspirations of being a nurse right after high school when she was accepted into the University at Buffalo School of Nursing. Then, three years into her program, her husband was offered a post-doctoral physician role in New Mexico.

“It was an amazing opportunity for us, so I didn’t have to think twice,” she explains. “We made the move and I finished up my nursing degree there. We stayed for two years and then returned to Buffalo.”

Upon returning, Zannoni began working in the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at Oishei Children’s Hospital. Twenty-five years and three kids later, Zannoni found herself ready to return to school.

“My goal was always to further my education,” she says. “After raising my beautiful children and a wonderful career in the PICU, I decided it was time to go back for a graduate nursing degree.”

Zannoni’s professional experiences inspired her to pursue a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner program.

“Throughout my years in the PICU, I observed that the doctors and nurses were putting all their focus on the patient’s medical needs and were not adequately addressing the mental health needs of patients or their families,” she explains. “It is very scary and overwhelming for a child and family to be hospitalized, especially in an intensive care unit. I saw a significant gap in nursing practice and wanted to go back to school and get my DNP to systematically address that gap.”

When the time came to select a school, she knew she wanted to return to UB. 

“I had most of my undergraduate education through UB, and the nursing program was exceptional —even in 1985!” she says. “I was the first cohort to graduate with a DNP. Even when the program was just getting off and running, it was exceptional.” 

For her capstone project – now called a DNP project – Zannoni helped nurses and doctors identify PICU patients with acute stress disorder (ASD). In collaboration with Pittsburg Children’s Hospital, she developed training that helped PICU staff utilize effective screenings for ASD.

“I would not be where I am today without the help and education from UB SON,” she says. “The school saw something in me and guided me through my educational path. Not only did my education impact my career choices, but the faculty believed in me.”

Immediately following graduation, Zannoni spent two years as a clinical assistant professor at UB School of Nursing.

“I really wanted to teach – it was one of the reasons for my DNP,” she says. “I applied for the position right away, and I loved it. I switched over to the clinical side to focus on patients, but I still love doing trainings with students and serving as a preceptor for UB.”

Addressing the children’s mental health gap

In her current role as the clinical director of children’s services at Horizon Health Services, Zannoni serves as the team leader for adolescent clinical consulting and development training.

“When I began, Horizon didn’t have a specific program for children,” she says. “So, I went to my supervisor and presented why they needed it. It was slow at first, but as it grew, we realized there was a definite need for this age group.”

Now, Zannoni is in the process of developing a comprehensive system of care that can help youths succeed at home, at school and in the community.

“People think that children and adolescents don’t get depressed or don’t have anxiety,” she explains. “Mental health stigma is even worse for children than for adults. Children do get depressed and anxious and we need to treat them just as much as anyone.”

“My goal is to create a safe environment for these children and provide families with the resources the programs they need to keep their children safe,” she adds. “As a DNP, one has to look at gaps in practice, and have a good working knowledge of the organizational structure of the services available and who are the stakeholders who will support your decisions.”

Zannoni also works one day a week at WNY Psychotherapy Services, which her husband owns. Previously, she spent five years as the clinical director of adolescent mental health at Renaissance Addiction Services.

“When I got to Renaissance, they didn’t have a system in place to address mental health in children with substance abuse,” she says. “I developed a program with social workers and nurses with a psych background that addressed this issue specifically with youths.

The experience also inspired her to obtain her Certified Addictions Registered Nurse-Advanced Practice credentials.

“Having this specialized knowledge, skill and abilities based upon predetermined standards in the specialty of addiction. I am committed to youths with prevention, intervention and management of addictive disorders.”

Long-term, Zannoni’s goal is to make mental health resources more accessible for patients and their families – ultimately affecting future generations.  

“I am compassionate and truly want to make a change in a patient/family dynamic for the better. I love working with the staff and I respect everyone’s role. I feel working in this field is a gift that not all people can do, and I feel very blessed that I have the opportunity to be a part of people’s lives.”

Story by Grace Gerass