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Counseling partnership raises the bar for child and adolescent mental health services

An innovative partnership with a local agency is helping to support mental health services in Syracuse. Last summer, Melissa Luke, Provost Faculty Fellow at Syracuse University, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Education, and Dean’s professor in the department of Counseling and Human Services, partnered with Liberty Resources, a non-profit behavioral health and social services organization in Syracuse, NY, to work on the shared goal of bolstering knowledge and skills of practitioners in the field of child and adolescent mental health.

The School of Education and Liberty Resources offered a special section of COU 676 Child Centered Play Therapy to 10 licensed practitioners, on site at Liberty, during times and in a format that would work with their professional schedules. “Not only does this kind of course build capacity in the field,” Luke says, “but it also strengthens the network of future supervisors for our students.” Kirsis Dipre, a doctoral student in counseling and counselor education, worked as the teaching assistant for the class and conducted research as part of her Future Professoriate Project.

Luke is a Nationally Certifed Counselor (NCC), an Approved Clinical Supervisor (ACS), and both a Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) and Certifed School Counselor in the State of New York. She sees a dearth of quality services and training in the specialty area of child and adolescent mental health, and is working to change that by making play therapy training accessible to practitioners that may not have had it as part of their professional preparation. “Children and adolescents are a marginalized population in the mental health feld,” she says. “They rely on access to services through the adults in their lives.”

Luke employs play therapy techniques for work with children and adolescents, and this was new material for many of the practitioners that she and Dipre worked with. “Play therapy is not the ONLY appropriate method for treating children, but it is a strongly supported and researched method that is a ft for children who may struggle with language acquisition and abstract thinking,” she says.

Dipre says that play therapy can be a diffcult thing to learn, as you have to role play as part of the process. Dipre says she too struggled with her roles as a professional and a student. “I was learning to be an instructor, but also learning to let go of my adult role and do the role play exercises. It was hard for me to provide feedback, so I learned instead to model.”

Before COVID-19, plans were in place to scale up the project and implement a similar model at another behavioral health agency. “Ideally, this would become research driven,” Luke says. “You can compare what happens when practitioners are trained in specialized methods in graduate school versus later, as well as client outcomes.” •