Hands on in the community: PSU trains tomorrow’s behavioral health professionals

a group of students sitting in a circle

As Oregon continues to experience challenges ranging from the post-pandemic mental health crisis to the opioid epidemic, there is a growing need for behavioral healthcare.

51Ʒ State is helping to meet this need in innovative ways while providing students with opportunities to get real-world behavioral health experience. By working at PSU’s own Community Counseling and Speech and Language Clinics—as well as hundreds of internships at hospitals, schools and community organizations throughout the state—PSU students are putting their classwork into practice while serving their communities.

School of Social Work: Serving the students who will serve the city

“Pretty much if you named any hospital in the state, if you named any local community mental health agency - we have students there,” says Julie Kates, associate professor of practice and director of field education for the School of Social Work.

Graduates from PSU’s School of Social Work, the only public university in Oregon offering a social work degree, are well prepared to enter the workforce. This is due in large part to the integral role of educationally focused, professionally supervised internships in the social work curriculum. Students develop competence in social work skills and professional values in actual service settings. They engage in community responsive practices that address the pressing needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized individuals, families, groups and communities.

All bachelor’s in social work (BSW) and first year master’s in social work (MSW) students are required to complete a 400-hour, nine-month supervised internship. Many of these internships involve addressing behavioral health concerns. For example, students may help provide mental health counseling, support residents at a domestic violence or homeless shelter or help children experiencing challenges in school.

Second-year MSW students choose an Advanced Clinical or Advanced Macro concentration and complete a second, 500-hour, nine-month clinical or macro focused internship. The vast majority—85%—of students are in the clinical concentration and intern in hospitals, schools, community mental health organizations, culturally specific service centers, crisis lines, health clinics and organizations that provide behavioral health services.

students in class
Students in the School of Social Work (photo courtesy of Christian Steinmetz)

“These internships provide services across the lifespan—children’s mental health, adolescent mental health, adult mental health,” says Kates.

Macro students work with individuals, communities and organizations that are focused on addressing disparities, community responses to social problems, policy practice and leadership.

The School of Social Work also supports students completing employment-based internships. These internships allows students to continue working while earning their degree, benefitting both students and their employers.

“Employees don't need to reduce their employment hours in order to earn their degree, which then doesn't have that negative impact on their employer,” says Kates. “It also supports students financially.”

A 2021 study by the School of Social Work found additional benefits when students were able to incorporate what they were learning in the classroom into their jobs.

“Not only did their job performance improve, but agency practices shifted in positive ways where their supervisors saw a significant impact,” says Kates.

Together, School of Social Work BSW and MSW students provide an astounding 280,000+ hours of service to the community each year through internships. Because PSU has social work programs in 51Ʒ, Eugene, Central Oregon and online in and outside of Oregon, the impact of these internships is spread across the state—and beyond. This impact will be even broader next year when PSU will begin placing 73 social work interns in high-need schools in tribal, rural and predominantly Latinx communities thanks to a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Each year, 400 students graduate with a degree from PSU’s School of Social Work, with over half of these graduates identifying as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Many of these graduates stay in the state. Over 50% of the practicing social workers in Oregon were trained at PSU.

College of Education: Educating future counselors and therapists

“We have one of the most robust clinical training programs in the region,” says Rana Yaghmaian, associate professor and department chair of counselor education. “In the Community Counseling Clinic, students are seeing real clients.”

Last year, ​​PSU students counseled a total of 281 clients at the clinic, including individuals, families, couples and children.

All students in the College of Education’s four counseling masters programs—clinical mental health counseling; marriage, couple and family counseling; school counseling; and clinical rehabilitation—also gain experience in behavioral health through practicums and internships.

In their second year, students in all four tracks take a practicum course where they provide counseling in PSU’s own Community Counseling Clinic, which offers low-cost and low-barrier mental health services for the 51Ʒ metro community. Students working in the clinic receive multiple levels of supervision including a faculty member who teaches the practicum course, outside community supervisors and peer supervisors who watch every counseling session and provide time-stamped feedback.

“The peer supervision model is something that’s really unique to our department,” says Yaghmaian. “Students leave the program with experience doing real clinical supervision.”

Once they have completed their practicum experience, counseling students move on to a 600-hour community-based internship. Each year, the College of Education hosts an internship fair where students can make connections with multiple possible internship sites at once.

a group of graduates throwing their hats in the air
College of Education graduates (photo by Rana Yaghmaian)

Students often do internships in places that are the same or similar to where they may work after graduation. Clinical rehabilitation counseling students will typically complete internships at places such as the Oregon Commission for the Blind or state vocational rehabilitation agencies, whereas students in the school counseling program intern in schools. Many counseling students intern with community-based mental health agencies.

Yaghmaian says that some of these agencies give their interns a full caseload of clients that they can take with them to their own private practice after graduating, and they teach interns practical skills like how to bill insurance.

“When they graduate, they already have the basic skills to run a business, which is a huge part of running a private practice,” she says.

The robust program makes graduates from PSU counseling programs strong job candidates.

“Because of the supervision models that we offer, I think they enter the field more prepared and more comfortable working with clients and ready to engage in the lifelong process of clinical feedback and self-reflection,” says Yaghmaian. “Many of our students become leaders in the profession and end up offering the same excellence in supervision and instruction that they’ve received through our programs.”

Each year PSU’s College of Education graduates around 60 new counselors, helping to meet Oregon’s high demand for mental health professionals. Yaghmaian says that the counseling programs stay well connected to their alumni, reinforcing a culture of mentorship and continuous learning.

College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: Bridging brain and behavior

“Our students have the opportunity to learn by doing through community-engaged courses and internships, faculty research labs, and our on-campus speech and hearing clinic,” says Todd Rosenstiel, dean of PSU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS). “These experiences prepare our students — many of whom stay in the region after they graduate — to work in schools, healthcare settings and community organizations.”

In CLAS, programs such as Psychology and Speech and Hearing Sciences as well as the interdisciplinary neuroscience minor help prepare students to work in behavioral health.

Zoom screen showing a telehealth session
A screenshot of a telepractice session as two grad student clinicians work with an 8-year old patient (Courtesy of Megann McGill).

CLAS is home to one of the top speech and hearing programs in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. Students in the undergraduate Speech and Hearing Sciences program have opportunities to participate in a range of guided clinical observations and be research assistants in faculty research laboratories that are studying topics directly applicable to clinical work such as how and can affect how people communicate.

Speech and Hearing graduate students work in PSU’s on-campus speech and language clinic, and help provide speech therapy for Oregonians across the state via telehealth. During their second year, graduate students complete two full-time community externships, where they gain 400 hours of direct clinical experience. This on-the-ground training has tangible benefits—the graduate program has a 100% job placement rate.

In courses like Advanced Neurophysiological Psychology, psychology students get direct instruction from graduate students in the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience program at Oregon Health & Science University, and learn about current, federally-funded local research on adolescent brain development, sleep, anxiety, depression, ADHD, drugs, alcohol, resilience and more.

student wearing gloves shows a crowd human brains
Britta Harbury (photo courtesy of Northwest Noggin)

“Many of our undergraduates end up working in labs studying these critical aspects of brain and behavior as part of the interdisciplinary neuroscience minor,” says Bill Griesar, assistant professor of psychology.

Students earning a neuroscience minor also directly engage in topics touching on behavioral health during volunteer opportunities. For example, in workshops at urban and rural K-12 classrooms, houseless youth nonprofits such as p:ear, youth correctional facilities, museums, coffee shops and more, students working with the nonprofit teach—and learn from—community members about the connections between the brain and behavior.

Last year at an outreach event, NW Noggin volunteer and PSU Honors student Britta Harbury ‘22 had conversations with students at Alliance High School about mental health. From these conversations she was inspired to create information sheets about mental health diagnoses and medications with language teenagers could understand.

“People are told to take medication without understanding what the medication is actually doing to their brains,” about her experience. “The students at Alliance High were curious about how these drugs worked and I hated that I often didn’t have good answers to their questions.”

Harbury later incorporated these info sheets in her Honors thesis, .

Harbury is one example of the hundreds of PSU students who graduate with the knowledge, skills and values needed to address Oregon’s complex and evolving behavioral health challenges and a commitment to create meaningful change in the lives of individuals and communities across the state.

Learn more about the programs mentioned in this article:

Social Work
Counselor Education
Speech and Hearing Sciences
Interdisciplinary Neuroscience