Psy.D. students provide free mental health counseling, gain hands-on experience

Elizabeth Cottrell
Elizabeth Cottrell

Just down U.S. 11 in Christiansburg, Radford University students in the Doctor of Psychology in Counseling Psychology (Psy.D.) program work hands-on with clients at the Community Health Center (CHC).

The CHC and its satellite offices offer a wide range of services to patients, including general medical care, women’s health services, dental care and behavioral health care. The center strives to be a one-stop-shop for patient care.

Located behind the CHC is a “Farmacy,” a collaboration of the New River Health District, Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Family Nutrition Program and CHC, where patients are given a script to learn farming and gardening techniques. In exchange for their work, patients are provided with a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Inside the CHC, Radford Psy.D. students provide mental health counseling services to those who don’t have insurance or cannot afford a sliding scale to offer services to a wider range of people and are offered at no cost.

Elizabeth Cottrell, a third-year Psy.D. student from Raleigh, North Carolina, worked in the CHC during her first year in the program. She said that the work is important to her and her values.

“It was really meaningful work,” she said. “Lots of programs do practicum and clinical experiences in college counseling centers. We do have that and we have those experiences, but this is a chance to be involved in the community and see a side of clinical work that maybe we otherwise wouldn’t [experience].”

Victor Bullock

Victor Bullock

Victor Bullock, of Prince George, Virginia, received his master’s in an urban area and said that the environments are different and require a different mentality from the clinician.

“In Chicago, there was a direct communication style,” he said. “Here, it is more community-based and getting to know you on a personal level. You really need to spend that time connecting with the person as a person first and becoming a part of the community and that you understand what is going on in the different neighborhoods.”

Cottrell said rural services require a different mindset – one that balances rural values with traditional mental health provider ethics.

“People in our area want to know you,” Cottrell said. “If you are viewed as an outsider, it is difficult for people to trust you. Rural values are telling me I need to be known in the community, but my ethics code is telling me to avoid that. That’s a big issue with rural services.”

While rural values are different from that of urban areas, many of the mental health issues are similar. Issues range from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to addictions to trauma and disorders.

“I’m seeing more PTSD around here, especially when we think about what trauma means and how do we define it,” Bullock said. “Part of that goes back to the rural culture. Not talking bad about people and trying to keep issues contained. It’s been unaddressed. That’s a reason for its prevalence and is part of the therapeutic process. We need to get through that so we can really address what’s going on. PTSD doesn’t go away by itself, so it’s been untreated for a long time.”

Part of the CHC’s ability to educate patients about mental health services stems from the clinic’s offering of a variety of health options, which helps introduce patients to mental health services during regular health checkups or dentist appointments.

The CHC pushes me to be the best clinician that I can be so I am well prepared for anyone that comes through that door with any issue on which they’d like to work.

Victor Bullock

“I think having all that under the same roof helps promote variety of services. It also normalizes us as therapists. We’re just people,” Bullock said. “We explain our role and answer questions they might have. It helps bring down that barrier and the CHC does a great job of that.”

Inside the classroom, Associate Professor of Psychology Tracy Cohn uses his experiences as a private practitioner to further prepare students for clinical and practicum work.

“He brings in a lot of his own experiences working within an organization,” Bullock said. “He helps us realize how we can be a part of the change in a way that is appropriate and professional.”

Cohn also allows students to work through problems independently while providing guidance only when necessary, said Cottrell.

While at the CHC, doctors and providers at the center use the Psy.D. students to assist doctors and provide a warm handoff for other services, if needed.

“[The CHC] brings together mental health and behavioral health with more traditional medicine and dentistry in a place that really helps to lower stigma and get people introduced to mental health clinician and expand their knowledge of what services are available,” Bullock said.

May 15, 2018
Max Esterhuizen