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Rethinking Mental Health Care Education
Local universities expand their behavioral health
degree options to help stanch alarming national trends.


Nov. 2018

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, mental illness is among the leading sources of disability in the U.S., addiction has reached public health crisis levels, and the suicide rate is climbing. One in five Americans endures some form of mental health condition, and many don’t receive behavioral health care.

Sobering statistics, especially when combined with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ projections that, by the year 2025, the country will be facing major shortages of psychiatrists and clinical counselors, especially in the populations of mental-health and substance-abuse social workers and school counselors.

To help fill the gap, along with the traditional advanced degrees in psychology and psychiatry, many universities are offering advanced degrees where they are projected to be needed most — in fields such as counseling and social work.

Dr. Douglas Woods, professor of psychology and dean of the graduate school at Marquette University, says that in the last decade their school has seen the mental health field move toward the use of short-term, evidence-based interventions for specific mental health conditions. “That’s not to say that traditional psychotherapy has gone away. Interest in all mental health fields are up,” Woods says. “For example, in our clinical psychology Ph.D. program, we routinely get 150-200 applicants for five to seven spots each year.”

Today, Marquette offers a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling, along with a specialization in rehabilitation counseling, a master’s in school counseling and a master’s in psychology with a specialization in applied behavior analysis.

“We determine what degrees to offer depending on whether there is a need in the region and when there is, whether it fits the mission of Marquette, and whether we have the ability to organize and provide a top-quality program,” Woods explains.

Marquette also recently started a new Master’s program in applied behavior analysis designed to train behavior analysts to help children with autism and persons with profound developmental delays/disabilities. “There are very few of these programs in the region, so there is a great need,” Woods says. “In this case, we had a program where there was a need, a fit with Marquette’s mission to be men and women for and with others, and we had some of the best behavior analysts in the country [in] our faculty. It made sense, and it has started very successfully this fall.”

Alverno College has offered their Master of Science in community psychology program since 2011, and it has become increasingly popular. To date, more than 100 graduates have earned licensure and work as counselors in a variety of agency and private practice settings in the Milwaukee community and beyond.

More recently, Alverno launched an educational specialist in school psychology program that leads to both a Master of Science in educational psychology and an education specialist degree. “We launched this program to meet an ever-growing demand in the Milwaukee community and throughout the state of Wisconsin,” says Dr. Rachel Reinders, assistant professor of psychology. “School psychologists are needed in many educational settings, and there are now vacancies that are going unfilled. There are currently 15 students enrolled in the first cohort, and we hope to grow the program in the coming years.”

Masters programs in fields outside of traditional psychology and psychiatry degrees also appeal to students who may not have the time or resources to complete doctoral studies.

“Many working adults are not able to dedicate five or six years of their life to continued schooling,” says Reinders. “These programs provide some areas of service that psychologists and psychiatrists have provided in the past, such as therapy, but do not allow practitioners to engage in other specialized areas, such as psychological testing or prescribing psychiatric medication.”

Upon graduation, the students are prepared to work as licensed professional counselors and often get work at private practice clinics or larger health care organizations providing counseling services.

Many of the students in these courses started on the path of the traditional psychology degree. Mount Mary University began offering a Master of Science in counseling degree in 2003 and added its school counselor program in 2008. The majority of students in the program hold a bachelor’s degree in psychology, says Dr. Carrie Smith King, counseling department chair and director of school and clinical mental health counseling programs.

“Some are naturally a helper type who are good listeners and were told they would be a good therapist,” King explains. “Others are working with people in different capacities and desire the training so that they can do more to help people cope, heal, adjust and be happy. As compared to the traditional Ph.D in psychology or psychiatry, the M.S. program allows them to do that in less time and at a lower cost.”

And to begin working with an underserved, struggling — and growing — population that so desperately needs their care.


This story ran in the Nov. 2018 issue of: