College of Health and Behavioral Studies

JMU's Counseling and Psychological Services partners with Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic

By Daniel Vieth ('15)

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JMU’s mission to be an engaged university is accomplished in part through collaborating with local organizations in ways that benefit the school and the community. This can be especially valuable to students when the organizations are directly related to their professional field. The partnership between JMU’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and the Harrisonburg Rockingham Free Clinic is just one example of students reaching out to the local community. Through this partnership, graduate students from CAPS have brought behavioral services to patients of the Free Clinic each week.

After learning how CAPS had successfully integrated with other clinics in the past, the Free Clinic contacted them to see if the two organizations could start a similar collaboration. “We’re in a situation at the Free Clinic where we’re providing comprehensive services for our patients, but so far it’s been focused on physical health,” said Keith Gnagey, the Executive Director at the Free Clinic. “It’s unrealistic to separate physical health and life, so we wanted to add behavioral-health alongside patient’s medical visits. This partnership was an opportunity to bring the two disciplines side by side.” According to Gnagey, the Free Clinic also wanted to encourage patients to follow through with recommendations and referrals to utilize area counseling services. “We had a conversation about an integrated model where the behavioral health professionals work side by side with the physicians and nurse practitioners,” explained Dr. Timothy Schulte, Director of CAPS. The partnership officially began in January 2016.

Every Monday, two graduate psychology interns and Schulte volunteer at the Free Clinic. “I go as a licensed faculty member to supervise, but the student interns are the ones that are really seeing and working with the patients,” said Schulte. “The interns have regular ongoing appointments with patients, can clarify diagnoses for providers, such as when they’re prescribing medications, or provide other support for practitioners at the clinic.” Even when patients do not have consultations scheduled, patients are encouraged to speak with the volunteers from CAPS, such as when they are waiting or during their medical appointments. These conversations are what the Free Clinic and CAPS call ‘warm hand-offs’. They bridge the patient from the medical provider to the counselor, often at the moment when they’re struggling with a specific need, and let the volunteers tell patients about mental health services in a non-threatening way.

“The Free Clinic celebrated its 25th anniversary in October, and we have a new message; ‘Compassionate Care, Extraordinary People’,” said Gnagey. “I think this message really fits in with this collaboration with CAPS.” Both CAPS and the Free Clinic plan to continue, and hopefully expand this partnership in the future, such as having volunteers come to the clinic on more days during the week. “I truly appreciate the efforts by JMU to support and be an engaged university. That allows a faculty member like me the freedom to go out and create these really unique training opportunities for students,” Schulte added. “I think the culture that we have here fosters this kind of unique opportunities, which translates to the students and their learning.” Along with being beneficial for patients and the providers at the Free Clinic, this partnership is also an opportunity for the students from CAPS to gain valuable experience in their field. “When we came up with this partnership, we knew that it would be a chance for students to expand their learning experiences,” said Gnagey. “This gives students a chance to see different kinds of patients.” According to Schulte, this also prepares students for the kind of work they will do when they graduate. “The field of psychology is moving towards being on the front-line, integrating more with primary health care,” Schulte continued. “That is what they’re likely to experience in the future, so we want them be ready and learn that while they’re in training.”The services provided by the CAPS volunteers have been helpful for medical providers by giving them more time to focus on medical problems with patients, and helpful for patients as they work through personal struggles. “So far the data is showing overall progress and outcomes in a positive direction, especially with issues like patient anxiety and depression,” said Gnagey. “When patients can speak with the volunteers, they appreciate being listened to and being treated like a person of worth. Being told their thoughts and feelings are normal can make a huge difference.”

Published: Thursday, November 17, 2016

Last Updated: Wednesday, January 16, 2019

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