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St. Edward's to offer low-cost mental health care to the Austin community

Austin American-Statesman - 1/17/2020

Looking for low-cost mental health care? St. Edward's University hopes to help.

On Wednesday, the school's counseling department will open the Center for Counselor Training and begin providing services to individuals, couples and families in the Austin area. The counseling will be provided by graduate students who are finishing a master's degree and earning the title of licensed professional counselor or licensed marriage and family therapist.

Practical experience is the hallmark of many top-notch counseling programs, said Bill McHenry, chairman of St. Edward's counseling department, but the faculty also see a great need for low-cost mental health services in Austin, where the population has nearly doubled in the past 20 years.

"There is, I would say, a dramatic need in the Austin region, especially at the affordable rate," McHenry said.

Some agencies have a 400 or 500-person wait list, said Kerrie Taylor, a faculty member in the counseling department and director of the new center. It can take more than six months for some people to see a counselor, sometimes at an hourly rate of $150 or more.

"That really prohibits care from being given to them when it's an acute time in their lives," said Erik Maye, one of the students studying to be a marriage, family and couples therapist. "So by us opening the clinic here, we can really treat some of the people a lot earlier that would not have received care otherwise."

Maye is one of the four students at St. Edward's who will be seeing eight clients one day a week, for a starting total of 32 clients (the center may take on more after the initial opening). Individuals are asked to pay $15 per session and couples $20, but no one will be turned away for not being able to pay.

"Our worldview is that the person or the couple or the family, they are unique in the world and we have to meet them where they are," McHenry said. "So, when we get clients who are wanting to come in for services, we will look at each one individually and figure out the best possible plan to support them."

Some might be wary of the fact that students will be the ones leading the counseling session, but Taylor said there's no need to be worried. In addition to the rigorous academic hoops they've had to jump through, several have already worked as interns at other agencies. All will be monitored by supervisors via confidential video recording.

Karey Scheyd, who is studying to be both a licensed counselor and marriage and family therapist, said people might hear the word "student" and think of a young, inexperienced person, but that's not the case in this instance.

"This is my second career, and I have life experience. I have work experience, and a lot of our classmates are in the same boat," Scheyd said. "So you may be getting somebody who's referred to as a student intern, but you're also oftentimes getting a person who has done some living."

Taylor said the faculty will watch the students for skill and theory use, but "want to make sure that ethical behavior is happening as well." If a supervisor feels they can help what they see happening on the screen, they'll call the student therapist on the phone during the session and provide guidance.

"Sixty percent of the factors that contribute to change in the client is in relationships," she said. "So we want to make sure our students are building therapeutic relationships that are effective with the client."

The center is located on the ground floor of East Hall. The space used to be a medical clinic for student residents, but has since been converted to include private rooms with love seats, arm chairs, cozy lighting and bookshelves. The center also includes a waiting area and toy room where counseling students can work with kids.

For the students, the center not only is a chance to spread their counseling wings, but also an opportunity to give back to the community.

"I think we have a lot of privilege," said Theresa Reinhart, who is studying to be both a licensed professional counselor and a marriage and family therapist. "I mean, this is a wonderful university. We have great professors. We're super lucky. And I feel like now we're walking the talk, because we are in the community and we are offering something to the community."

Scheyd said it "feels like a real honor" to be one of the center's inaugural group of students.

"Because it's something that can last, and obviously there's a great need for no- and low-cost mental health services, there's no end to that need. I'm really glad that the university is taking that on as a priority," Scheyd said.

Potential patients can learn more by emailing counseling@stedwards.edu or calling the center at 512-428-1242. The program is open to anyone in the greater Austin area. If the staff at St. Edward's feels they can't provide the right care for a client, they'll refer them to a partner agency, Taylor said.

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