Building a Foundation in Clinical Mental Health Counseling

During their second semester on campus, students pursuing a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) enroll in a course titled “Foundations of Clinical Mental Health.” For the past couple of years, Dr. Jennifer Cook has taught this course, incorporating a research project and poster presentation.

Spring 2017 Foundations of Clinical Mental Health students

First-year students in Masters Degree programs have a steep learning curve. They are adjusting to an increased workload and higher expectations than their undergraduate experiences while sometimes learning a new city and environment. It’s essential to build a strong foundation for their academic and professional careers. As part of this process, students in the College of Education’s “Foundations of Clinical Mental Health” course are working on skills that will translate to the next level both before and after graduation. Dr. Jennifer Cook’s students research a designated population of society, its perceptions by society and popular culture, and at the end of the semester, present their findings to an audience of peers and community members.

This particular project occurs in four phases. In Phase One, students write a proposal. As background, students may work with a partner or on their own, the choice is up to them. Students who work together typically do so based on subject interest. They identify the population they will investigate for the entire project, conduct a preliminary literature review (to ensure the topic is viable from a counseling literature perspective), and state their personal and professional motivations for their chosen population.

In Phase Two, students examine both popular culture and scholarly literature perspectives of their chosen population. For the popular culture piece, they evaluate multiple media forms (e.g., movies, TV, Facebook, Twitter, memes, informal surveys, blogs). For the scholarly literature, they are required to examine six domains (e.g., evidenced based practices, common diagnoses, utilization of wellness and prevention services), while they integrate the impact of multiple cultural identities and social justice needs/implications. To conclude Phase Two, they compare and contrast popular culture and the scholarly literature, and draw reasonable conclusions how both impact clients, counselors, counseling treatment, and counseling outcomes.

During Phase Three, students interview at least one counseling clinician who works with their chosen population. They have to devise their own interview questions, many of which come from what they learned during Phase Two and the questions that arose for them. In all phases, students reflect on their own process and how it is shaping them as a counselor. Phase Four is the poster presentation. Students create a poster that captures their largest learnings throughout the project; they are responsible for designing the poster and deciding what to include. At the end of the semester, all students present their research in front of an audience of faculty, staff, and community members.

For Dr. Cook, there are a couple of advantages to students’ work and outcomes: “first and foremost, it gives student the opportunity to educate others and advocate for the population they researched.” If each year students and the audience can take away new information about topics that they hadn’t previously considered, she considers it a win. In addition, Dr. Cook notes that students “get to practice professional skills, like public speaking, having professional conversations, and displaying the most important information people need to know (posters are common at our professional conferences).” As students’ confidence increases and anxiety related to presenting decreases, she sees another benefit as “counselors are called on to present to lay people and professionals pretty regularly, so it’s excellent to expose them to doing it early so they know they can.”

Overall, this project is beneficial because it challenges students to view populations from multiple angles, to understand more about the reasons why people can’t or won’t seek mental health treatment, and to understand the realities of working with their chosen population.

This semester, students chose to focus on the following populations:

  • Adolescents with Substance Use Disorder
  • Latinos with Anxiety Disorder
  • Children who Witness Intimate Partner Violence
  • Personality and Eating Disorders
  • Adolescents who Experience Trauma
  • Women and Sex Issues
  • Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse
  • Adolescents with addiction
  • African American Adolescent Males
  • Refugees with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
  • Young women with Borderline Personality Disorder
  • Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Interested in learning more about the College of Education’s graduate programs in Counselor Education and Counseling Education? Visit us online!