First cohort set to help battle mental health crisis

Among the first cohort to earn a master's in Clinical Mental Health Cousneling were, from left: Alexis Sowell, Faith Mullender and Gessica Joseph.

Story by Mike Kilen
Photos by Ralph Freso

GCU News Bureau

There is not a better time for counselors to graduate.

The world is in dire need of the expertise of the first cohort in Grand Canyon University’s Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

"We are so short of therapists in my company. Everyone has double the caseload. I know it's like that at every community mental health facility because of the pandemic," said Faith Mullender.

Mullender was among the Fall Commencement graduates in Wednesday afternoon's ceremony and said her work toward a master's degree was immediately worth it.

"I already got a job that pays $30,000 more a year because of it," said Mullender, who was promoted from a health mentor to a counselor in an outpatient clinic at Southwest Behavioral & Health Services in Phoenix.

But new graduates of the first seven students in the cohort say it comes with increased urgency.

Alexis Sowell, left, and Faith Mullender are all smiles at Commencement.

Alexis Sowell, zipping up her gown outside GCU Arena on Wednesday, said she saw increased suicide calls during the pandemic while working as a dispatcher for hospital emergency rooms.

The Mesa woman wanted to help more people on an individual level. So after earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology, Sowell found GCU and loved the Christian worldview.

“That is one of things about the counseling field -- you want to try to incorporate the identity into a treatment plan that serves them best,” she said.

Everyone has an idea of how the world works, Sowell added, and she isn’t about to tell them what to believe.

“I am very person centered. I want a safe place for my clients, providing them empathy and not me telling them who to be but be comfortable with whoever they are,” she said. “So I’m not going into it giving people advice. Yes, we are working to help them, but you have to be aware of your own biases.”

She credits GCU for helping her solidify those skills.

“I’ve never seen a program so great,” said Dr. Catherine Mueller-Bell, an associate professor who joined the Clinical Mental Health Counseling team at GCU just over a year ago. “The faculty that Dr. Anna Edgeston has hired from all over the country are so sophisticated, diverse with their skills and are so passionate.”

Dr. Anna Edgeston

Edgeston, Program Director of Clinical Mental Health Counseling and School Counseling, said she is "honored to be part of an institution that has heard the call and is invested in training counselors to address mental health needs globally. I am also excited for our first graduates of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program at GCU, who will be instrumental in positively impacting the lives of many people."

The new program comes at a good time.

“The mental health challenges were there before," Mueller-Bell said, "but we’ve all been going through a change in lifestyle, one that none of us can control and that can cause mental health symptoms to escalate.”

Job loss, domestic violence, anxiety and overflowing shelters made it a challenge in the past 18 months. But the good news, she added, is that these troubled times led to a growing recognition of mental illness and the professionals who can help them.

Graduates are prepared to serve the populations who suffer mental illness, from mild to severe in a clinical counseling setting.

The first group of students was passionate about social justice, making sure that treatment for mental health issues are accessible to all people, regardless of the socioeconomic status or race, she said.

“Mental health services have become very expensive, and it can exclude a lot of folks,” she said. “It bothers them, and it equally bothers me.”

Because of the heavy patient load during the pandemic, it was hard for many counselors to take on new clients. “They see the ‘isms’ – racism and classism and sexism – and they want to be a part of social justice.”

Mueller-Bell said students are encouraged to be advocates for legislation and community mental health models that tackle the wider problem of “high need and low human resources.”

But on an individual level, they are trained in trauma-informed care, sensitive to the past traumatic experiences of each client while helping them regain a sense of dignity and self-worth.

The first cohort included students from across the country who face different challenges. Loretta McCormick is a New Jersey counselor who is helping tackle an opioid epidemic in her community, made worse by the pandemic, she said.

After an internship to wrap up her master's program, McCormick quickly got a job as an outpatient counselor at a recovery center in what she describes as an area of the country troubled by addiction.

There are often underlying mental health issues with addiction.

“I was uniquely prepared for it, between school and working in an apartment complex where people weren’t always happy,” said McCormick. “As a property manager for 20 years, the part I liked most is when the tenants would come in and needed help with problems.”

Gessica Joseph traveled from Florida.

She honed that interest at GCU, learning theories and how to apply them and identifying clients’ strengths so they can overcome their weaknesses.

Gessica Joseph came from Florida to celebrate the hard work that went into a master's degree she earned to meet a rising need.

"When I was growing up, we didn’t know about mental health. If anybody wanted it, they were 'crazy,'" Joseph said. "You had to have to have some type of severe mental illness to have counseling or seek therapy. So you had to figure it out on your own."

There's more awareness now, and she wants to help others figure it out.

The master's degree already has helped many of the graduates do it with higher pay or new jobs.

Soon after finishing her coursework, Sowell learned she would be an outpatient counselor for Crisis Preparation and Recovery in Scottsdale.

“I grew so much individually,” she said of her study at GCU. “To help others, I had to work on myself. You learn from clients. They bring self-awareness, too.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.


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