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Aspiring Behavioral Health Professionals Gain Hands-On Practice at Drexel Program

July 7, 2011

Students discuss a week of behavioral health exploration, with their parents looking on.

Students discuss a week of behavioral health career exploration, with their parents looking on.

A college student, struggling in school, his grades dropping, explains his troubles to his new therapist. The therapist listens carefully and focuses on connecting with her client. She asks about the nature of the problem. Listening closely to his response, she echoes the main idea when phrasing her next question, mirroring his statement and demonstrating that she understands his point of view.

In a room down the hall, just beyond their earshot, a cheer goes up among a group of high school students who are watching the encounter live on a TV screen. The therapist and client both know that they’re being watched. In fact, the “therapist” is also a high school student who was a member of that nervous, cheering crowd just a few minutes ago. The client is an undergraduate actor helping out in the Standardized Patient Lab at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, where eleven teens experienced an up-close immersion in learning about behavioral health careers last week.

For these high school students who aspire to work in behavioral health care, the week-long “Summer Academy” run by Drexel’s Department of Behavioral Health Counseling, was a preview of their future careers. In addition to training and hands-on practice with counseling skills, the week’s activities gave students the opportunity to meet guest speakers, attend workshops, participate in panel discussions, observe an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and go on field trips to mental health and addiction treatment agencies.
The experience was designed to give students a small taste of Drexel’s innovative, clinically applied Behavioral Health Counseling bachelor’s degree program and, like the bachelor’s degree program, to broaden their understanding of the rapidly changing behavioral health care field.

Historically, treatment services for mental health and addictions have been based on a medical model, with the goal of guiding patients in a straight line from diagnosis to treatment to cure. Now, a transformation is underway across the country to be more inclusive of treatment approaches that support resiliency and recovery oriented models of care. As a result, local and federal policies have begun to mandate changes in how the future workforce is to be educated and trained.

At the same time, the demand for professionals in the field is growing, with projected 23-25 percent increases in employment needs over the next 15 years.

That need is where Drexel’s programs – both the summer immersion experience that high school students experienced this week, and the undergraduate degree program  – can make a difference. The key element in both is that they give students hands-on practice.

Dr. Ronald Comer, chair of the Department of Behavioral Health Counseling, draws an analogy to bachelor’s degree programs in nursing: “If a person graduates with a BSN and enters the workforce, he or she is prepared to do many of the things that a nurse is expected to do. But in behavioral health, most students have to be trained how to work with people with mental illness” through graduate-level education or on-the-job training. Drexel’s program, he says, is unique among undergraduate programs in providing in-depth clinical training, giving students practice with techniques of psychiatric rehabilitation and cognitive behavioral therapy, and preparing them with the core abilities used for community-based mental health services.

And that hands-on practice – and lots of it -- makes all the difference. For the 11 high school students who had their first experience trying out work as a therapist this week, it wasn’t all cheers and successes. They also struggled with nerves and uncertainty. During a debriefing discussion, several commented that they didn’t know what to say and were afraid of making a mistake.

Comer, however, offered reassurance and words of wisdom from “that famous philosopher, Billy Joel, who said, ‘Mistakes are the only thing you can truly call your own.’” We learn from our mistakes and by practicing what we learn, he told students. “The best ability for a counselor is to be self-reflective, to learn and grow. If we’re not able to reflect and learn ourselves, how can we expect that of others?”

Summer Academy students with the Mario the Magnificent dragon statue on Drexel's main campus.Related Links

News media contact:

Rachel Ewing, News Officer, Office of University Communications

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