Mastering Mental Health

Group of graduate studies at Bethany Graduation ceremony, Bethany Magazine

Photo by David Norris (’91)

From left: Rev. Dr. Michael Smith, Dr. Benjamin Kohls, Dr. Helena Stevens, Zacharias Laughlin, Bethany Pearce, Hope Loersch, Margaret Petersen, Michael Helwig, Sydney Chouinard, Mark Krause, Dr. Karina Clennon, Dr. Jason Lowrey

By Emeline Gullixson (’21) – Bethany Magazine, Spring/Summer 2023

Alongside the usual festivities of this year’s Spring Commencement came a historic moment for Bethany: the first cohort of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program graduated with their master’s degrees. The seven graduates began their studies in the fall of 2021, completing a two-year program.

“The format of our program lends itself to folks who are re-careering, advancing their career, or in their later stages of life,” said Dr. Benjamin Kohls, Director of Graduate Studies and a core faculty member. He noted that students entering the program right after completing an undergraduate degree are also most welcome. Kohls helped write the program’s curriculum and got it accredited through the Higher Learning Commission. 

The timeline for graduation is flexible; students can choose a two or three-year plan. Both plans offer the same courses amounting to sixty credits. 

“It’s a little kinder process for those that are at a different stage of life, where they have responsibilities inside and outside the home, or a professional career. It keeps them moving in an efficient way, but gives them a little breathing room,” said Kohls, speaking of the three year course of study.

Not only is it Bethany’s first graduate program, but it is also the College’s first online degree offered. Bethany serves students all across the country, and even one student who lived abroad. 

“It allowed a lot of flexibility with my schedule to be a full-time employee while also being a full-time student,” said Syndey Chouinard, a 2023 graduate. Though she certainly had to be disciplined about meeting deadlines, Chouinard found that she enjoyed the ease of working from the comfort of her own home. 

The online program is mostly asynchronous, save for three residency visits to Bethany’s campus as well as an in-person internship at a local clinical site. The first two campus residency visits come during the first and second fall semesters, where students attend a four-day intensive in-person experience. Using the counseling spaces in Honsey Hall, professors can give students immediate feedback on their skills.  

Sydney Chouinard, a woman talking

Photo by David Norris (’91)

Sydney Chouinard during in an in-person residency.

The third campus residency occurs during the students’ final spring semester, where they present their capstone project, which integrates professional and skills training, their identity as a Christian Mental Health Counselor, and evidence-based work. 

Besides these residencies, the main in-person component is the 700 hours of required internship experience, which happens over the course of the students’ final year. This gives the students the opportunity to work as a counselor in a local, professional clinical site.

“They’re working, seeing clients, and have direct supervision of a licensed counselor on-site,” said Kohls. “It’s hands-on training.”

Dr. Karina (Harstad ’07) Clennon is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Mental Health Counseling, and serves as the Clinical Experiences Coordinator. She helps students secure a clinical site where they accomplish their practicum and internship. This includes guiding students to know what to look for in a practicum site, and verifying that the site they’re interested in meets those requirements. 

“Our hope is that they get a variety of experiences working with different populations,” said Clennon, adding that because the clinical work is local to the student, the process of selecting and securing a practicum site is largely student driven. 

During their clinical experience, students meet synchronously online once a week with classmates and faculty. On top of support from their site supervisor, students bring cases for group consultation to their online meetings. Students then learn from each other’s experiences, and receive feedback concerning various client situations. 

Chouinard interned with Christian Family Solutions, where she got her own client load, wrote progress notes, and diagnosed clients, among other things. She recently began her full-time job as a counselor there. 

All seven of this year’s graduates were offered jobs at counseling sites, a testament to their work as well as their professors’ instruction. “These students with jobs are highly motivated and put a great first impression out there for our program at these different sites,” said Clennon.

Graduates are licensure eligible, and are certainly well prepared for the application process. To do so, they have to complete 2,000 hours–around two years–under the supervision of a licensed counselor. Then, they must pass an exam and apply for their licensure. 

Michael Helwig was a 2023 graduate who also did his clinical internship at Christian Family Solutions, though at a different site. He now works there as a full-time therapist in training. “I have recently been asked to consider doing some work as an advocate for mental health in ministry spaces. This was actually what my final capstone project presented.”

Both Helwig and Chouinard were drawn to the program in part because of its Christian worldview. “During class, there’s always the question, ‘How does your faith interact or intersect with this topic?’” said Kohls.  

“You have a distinct understanding that the faculty and peers are going to share the same or similar faith to you, and that conversations about faith, hope, prayers, and forgiveness are not only encouraged, but expected,” noted Clennon.

There is sure to be increased interest in Bethany’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program in the coming years, and this first graduate cohort has nothing but encouragement for those following in their footsteps.

Helwig said: “So many friends and acquaintances spoke highly of the College and the new master’s program. I am thankful for this experience and consider Bethany a new home and family in a very real sense.”

Students in a space, Honsey Hall, practicing skills during their on-campus residency visit, talking together, Bethany Magazine

Photo by David Norris (’91)

Students utilized space in Honsey Hall to practice skills during their on-campus residency visit.