Hands-on Clinical Training Turns Students into Professional Psychologists

December 13, 2017
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For an hour prior to seeing her first client at the GW Professional Psychology Program’s Center Clinic, second-year graduate student Jesse Greenblatt was more anxious than her new patient. She nervously rearranged chairs, adjusted the lamp light and practiced her body language cues from folding her hands in her lap to nodding empathetically—all while frantically remembering the lessons from her clinical skills classes. Could she emulate the practiced manner of the program’s more experienced students? Would the client accept her as a qualified mental health professional?

“We have a saying in the program about your first session: Just stay in the room,” said Greenblatt, who is pursuing a doctor of philosophy degree in clinical psychology. “If you can put aside your nerves and just hang in there, pretty soon you realize you’re just a concerned fellow human being having a conversation.”

Accredited by the American Psychological Association, Columbian College’s Professional Psychology Program graduates practitioner-scholars ready for careers as clinical psychologists. The program’s 100 students combine in-depth psychodynamic training with classes on the scientific foundations of psychology. Courses are taught by licensed clinicians and faculty members skilled in using a psychodynamic framework for the assessment and treatment of psychopathology. The Center Clinic—a nonprofit outpatient community mental health and training clinic housed at GW—provides students with the opportunity to work directly with patients, many of whom are local D.C.-area residents who might not have access to needed care.

“For students seeking careers as psychologists, our program provides a full-time immersion experience,” said Paul Gedo, director of clinical training and associate professor of clinical psychology. “We are providing real services, especially to folks who don’t have a lot of money or are historically underserved, and we are offering students a broad variety of diverse experience early in their training. It’s a win-win.”

Between the clinic and their classroom training, students “hit the ground running,” said third-year student Celeste Kelly. They also hone their diagnostic and treatment skills through mental health assistance to affiliate organizations like charter schools, elder care and homeless shelters. They perform third-year externships at facilities that include college counseling centers and hospital psychiatric units; and they conclude their studies with year-long full-time internships, providing mental health services at clinics, schools and hospitals around the country.

The emphasis on real-life clinical experience was the reason Greenblatt, who received her BA in English from Wesleyan University, chose Columbian College’s program. During her first year at the clinic, she primarily monitored the clinic phones, often serving as the important first point of contact for potential clients. Now in her second year, she is seeing as many as five clients a day in between classes, all with a post-doctoral fellow on site and supervised by a licensed faculty member.

Students routinely treat clients with issues like depression and mood disorders, but conditions such as severe eating disorders, substance abuse and acute suicidal inclinations are referred to other facilities. The clinic regularly liaisons with the GW Hospital, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the School of Nursing. “We tell students that even though they are beginners, there are a lot of resources for them and our clients,” said Loring J. Ingraham, program director and professor of clinical psychology. “In some ways, their patient receives some of the most dedicated treatment they will ever get.”

Building Confidence

Once the clinic doors open, students often find that sitting across from a real-life client can feel like a different world than their practice sessions. Developing confidence and finding their professional voice are sometimes the biggest hurdles for students. “Nothing prepares you for seeing patients—it’s incredibly intimidating and you never feel like you’re ready,” said second-year student W. Max Hurley-Welljams-Dorof. “I acted like I was confident and, after awhile, I forgot I was acting.”

Professional Psychology Canopy

Like many student-clinicians, Hurley-Welljams-Dorof—whose interest is in treating severe psychopathology conditions like schizophrenia—is still learning not to internalize his patient sessions and carry those strong feelings into his home-life. “There’s an extreme level of intimacy that develops with a patient. They tell you things they haven’t told their family or loved ones,” he said. “You need to find a way to turn those emotions off or you won’t be an effective therapist.”

In fact, students often undergo independent sessions with a therapist to help them sort through their emotions and to give them a window into the counseling process. “If you are learning how to be a therapist, it’s important to know what it feels like to be a patient,” Kelly said. “You want to see the process from both sides of the room.” Through her externship at Catholic University’s student services center, Kelly has refined her area of interest to college counseling. “I love the idea of helping them navigate their intersecting identities as they start to view themselves as adults and as individuals,” she said.

And Greenblatt has found a niche working with young people at a D.C. middle school. “This program has helped me learn not only what I want to do but also who I want to be,” she said. “I feel like I’m getting to know this field while getting to know myself.”