Students in Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Counseling have an opportunity to help struggling students in Cambria County school districts while gaining valuable professional experience.

IUP’s Department of Counseling has been invited to join the Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program and REACH (Reaching Educational Achievements with Clinical Mental Health), a school-based mental health agency, to provide interns for supervised counseling and support for students in Cambria County schools.

IUP’s role would be to provide interns from the clinical mental health counseling master’s program to serve in the schools, under the supervision of faculty in the IUP Counseling Department and REACH program supervisors.

To complete the IUP program, IUP counseling students are required to complete 60 graduate credits, including both practicum and internship courses; often, these internships are unpaid, which can be a financial hardship for students, Kimberly Desmond, Department of Counseling chairperson, said.

“This partnership enables IUP counseling students to gain essential experience in the field while still under close supervision by the Department of Counseling faculty as well as members of REACH, and helps to eliminate financial stress,” Desmond said. “Working with students in Cambria County schools gives the counselors in training an opportunity for practical application of their learned skills from their courses.”

Funding for the program, including for the IUP interns, would be part of a multi-state opioid settlement that includes all counties in Pennsylvania.

Discussions about IUP’s involvement started in February between Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program Administrator Fred Oliveros and the Department of Counseling assistant chairperson, Brittany Pollard-Kosidowski. 

“With the help of our IUP Counseling Clinical Coordinator, Dr. Lorraine Guth, we outlined the supervision and supervisor requirements needed for our students enrolled in their field (internship) experience, and Mr. Oliveros worked to develop a contract with REACH to provide the necessary supervision with a qualified supervisor,” Desmond said.

“Angela Yoder, the clinical director of REACH, is a graduate of IUP’s counseling program, so she understands the requirements we have for supervision,” Desmond said.

The mental health initiative was developed by the Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program in response to a statewide youth behavior survey that indicated a growing number of youths were struggling with depression.

As part of the initiative, REACH will provide seven experienced masters-level mental health counselors who will split their time between two school districts Monday through Friday, working inside schools each day. These counselors will supervise the IUP interns, who will be providing mental health support to students in the schools.

“Our goal is to prevent more individuals from falling into substance use disorder,” Oliveros said, “and this is one way to prevent that from happening.”

The program is designed to erase barriers that prevent local youth from getting the proper help for untreated issues such as anxiety and depression, he said.

There will be opportunities for 14 interns from IUP, who would begin work in the school districts in the spring. The program would be offered at Cambria County’s 13 public school districts and Bishop McCort Catholic and Bishop Carroll Catholic high schools.

“There are a number of IUP graduates working in our region in the clinical mental health field, so we were aware of the quality of the professionals coming out of this program,” Oliveros said. “The clinical focus of the program was also a great fit for the type of services we want to deliver in this project, and the typical cohort size at IUP offered us the potential to have internship coverage across the entire county.”

Oliveros and IUP officials said the program could have other long-term benefits.

“Our initial goal, of course, is to help struggling students, including assisting them in developing coping skills so that they don’t turn to alcohol and other drugs,” Desmond said. “We also hope that this program ultimately will lead to more counselors in the schools – especially rural schools -- because of the positive experiences that our students have through this initiative,” she said.

By developing a pipeline of future mental health counselors and introducing them to the community and its schools, the region stands a better chance at retaining them when they start their careers, Oliveros said.

“Even if we can keep one or two of them each year in Cambria County, the effect that can have over time is big,” he said.