Students Helping Students

In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, new CUNY clinical psych program focuses on mental health issues.


Clinical psychology candidates are providing counseling services to students.
Perhaps no event drew as much attention to the reality of mental illness on American campuses as the horrific massacre, in April of 2007, of 32 students and others at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. It was an act of madness carried out by a deranged student, whose significant psychological disturbances had floated below the radar of police and university officials.

But even before that tragedy, CUNY Student Affairs administrators had been seeking ways to more vigorously respond to the mental health needs of its students.

"Virginia Tech put us on the fast track. I'm not going to lie. But this had been on the radar even prior to Virginia Tech," said Matthew Schoengood, vice president of student affairs at the Graduate School and University Center.

Schoengood was referring, among other things, to a new Clinical Psychology Fellowship program that the University is especially proud of, and that it hopes to expand.

With Vice Chancellor Garrie W. Moore as a guiding force, the University has been tapping the passions and skills of its Clinical Psychology doctoral candidates, employing them to help students struggling with problems ranging from simple anxiety to depression and even thoughts of suicide.

"He was the visionary," said Dr. Elliot Jurist, head of the University's doctoral program in Clinical Psychology, speaking of Vice Chancellor Moore and his efforts to deal with the problem of mental issues, the incidence of which has been growing at CUNY as elsewhere in American society, according to Dr. Jurist.

"We're seeing much more severe psycho-pathologies," Dr. Jurist said, mentioning bipolar disorders and other illnesses that often require medication. "Life is much more stressful than in the past."

Winners of the Fellowship in Clinical Psychology earn $18,825 a year, and they receive full tuition assistance (amounting to roughly several thousand dollars a year, depending on the student's level in the doctoral program). They are assigned to counseling centers at CUNY colleges around the city. This gives the future psychologists the opportunity to train under certified professionals as they build resumes that make them more competitive in applying for future positions, and as they (perhaps most importantly) assist in helping students cope with sometimes debilitating stresses.

There are roughly 100 clinical psychology doctoral candidates, including those who have finished their four years of course work but are focusing on writing their dissertations. The candidates often need to be employed as they struggle toward their degrees.

But opportunities to work and be paid in their chosen field are limited. Enter the Clinical Psychology Fellowship program, which now boasts 20 Fellows, up from 12 last year. The University is funding the Fellowship at a cost of about $350,000 for the current academic year.

Fellows must be in their third or fourth year of course work "This gives us the opportunity to do good on two complementary fronts, tending to the mental health needs of our hundreds of thousands of students, while we assist Dr. Jurist in turning out the most competent and most diverse collection of clinical psychologist in the country," Vice Chancellor Moore said.

One of the fortunate Ph.D. candidates is Amber Kraft Nemeth, who is in her second year of the Fellowship, having been assigned last year to the counseling center at The New York City College of Technology. As she was interviewed, she was about to begin the current academic year at Brooklyn College's center. Nemeth is a fourth-year candidate who eventually plans to write her dissertation on "social relationships as they are unfolding in this technology-, Internet-laden world."

As for now, as a Fellow, she feels she is learning even as she helps to heal. "The students I met had very complex lives and were struggling with all sorts of social pressures, with immigration pressures, with family pressures, you name it. And they were faced with these pressures in addition to going to school and trying to obtain a college degree," Nemeth said, speaking of her 15 hours a week at City Tech's counseling center last year.

"Some come in with severe distress, in crisis, but many require only short-term help," Nemeth said. "It can be anything from a relationship problem all the way to suicidal ideation."

Nemeth was strongly protective of the privacy of those she helped, refusing to give even broad details about any of the cases.

Fellows function under the supervision of licensed professionals.

At City College, where the University's Clinical Psychology program is based, there is a counseling center, where clinical psychology students are required to work, without pay, at various levels, from greeting patients and answering phones, to actually counseling students seeking help.

The center has the look and feel of a doctor's office, and medication is prescribed for those students with serious problems. Dr. Jurist said that there are "really huge differences" in the way counseling centers operate across the University, as well as in the number of counselors assigned to the centers. Some centers focus exclusively on crisis counseling, while others also do academic advisement.

At Lehman College, the Director of Counseling, Dr. Annecy Baez, who has a doctorate in social work, says she does "personal counseling only" and has two full-time and three part-time counselors working with her. This year she has one of the Fellows working in the office, and she loves the idea of having Ph.D. candidates helping with the counseling.

"I like doctoral students because many have a lot of training by the time they come," Dr. Baez said. "They have taken psychology courses on intake and assessment, and they understand the development of mental problems. They come with a lot of courage and a lot of passion."