Master's in behavioral health psychology aims to address community needs

Author: Linda Spice '89, M.Ed. '19

Published Date: 6/4/2021

Categories: Alumni Psychology


Dr. Jessica Lahner
Dr. Jessica Lahner

Although Carroll had identified the need for a master’s level program in psychology long ago, it wasn’t until Dr. Jessica Lahner came on board as a full-time faculty member in 2016 that the idea started moving to fruition. From day one on her job, she was given the charge to make it happen.

Within two years, she had spearheaded discussions that resulted in the creation of a master’s in behavioral health psychology program now launching in the fall of 2021 with its first cohort of students. Lahner also credited Dr. Peggy (Margaret) Kasimatis for advocating for the master's-level program in psychology over the years that helped to fuel the more recent discussions and eventual implementation. Kasimatis, a clinical associate professor of Health and Medicine, will serve as full-time faculty in the program when it launches.

“I wrote dozens of letters of recommendations for (Carroll) graduates who wanted to pursue a master’s level program in mental health," Lahner said. "A lot of students would tell me, ‘I wish I could stay here,’ and now they're going to be able to do that.”

The program is designed for researchers as well as practitioners so is likely to be of interest to a variety of professionals as well as recent graduates who are beginning their careers, and aligns with Carroll’s current strategic plan, Pioneer Driven. Lahner added that the program’s timing also aligns well with the development of Carroll’s new School of Education and Human Services, being that the graduate program is focused on human services.

Carroll’s curriculum was largely established before the 2020 pandemic onset but faculty looked closely at emerging COVID-19 mental health data to ensure that courses will help address community needs, Lahner said. More than 42% of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in December 2020, an increase from 11% the previous year. 

Compared to other states, Wisconsin has significantly fewer mental health professionals serving the needs of its residents, even when state population sizes are taken into account, Lahner said. She added that Wisconsin ranks 32nd in the nation for the number of mental health professionals in general. More specifically, Wisconsin ranks 27th for licensed professional counselors – the license that Carroll's master’s in behavioral health psychology prepares graduates to hold.

Particularly striking within the COVID-19 data is the highlight in disparities in mental health experiences and treatment in ethnic minorities and disadvantaged populations, who have already faced the challenges of systemic racism, discrimination, and chronic microaggressions long before the pandemic. Within these populations, people reported higher levels of anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide during the pandemic, according to Lahner.

Said Lahner, “Understanding and reducing behavioral health disparities was already a guiding principle in our training program. So, in some ways, the data coming out of the pandemic validated this priority.”

The rise in adverse mental health experiences overall and the reduction in the stigma related to mental health, are changes that Lahner said are most notable. She said the need for mental health practitioners will grow as the stigma is reduced and the availability for treatment expands.

“For example, Walmart and CVS are piloting offering mental health services. So, you can make an appointment for your sore throat and to talk about your anxiety at your local pharmacy. I have no doubt access will continue to expand in these ways. We'll need counselors to staff these clinics,” she said.

Graduates will be prepared to work as counselors/therapists in private practice or mental health clinics/hospitals, as career counselors, academic counselors, psychometrists, higher education instructors, or pursue their Ph.Ds. Student interest and community needs drove the program’s four areas of specialization that include clinical assessment, adult and geriatric behavioral health, youth behavioral health and/or applied research. Students will be able to develop a specialty and then work with Carroll to secure practicum and internship experience.

“That’s unique,” Lahner said. “It’s rare in a master’s program that you have those opportunities."

Providing some of those opportunities will be community partners, such as Rogers Behavioral Health, 16th Street Clinic, Lad Lake, Catholic Charities, and Medical College of Wisconsin. Some of those partners also helped Carroll to establish its program and curriculum by identifying educational gaps for potential employees in the field. Carroll took the advice of organizations and incorporated training and education around gaps that included the need to practice case management and an understanding of a history of the field.

“When organizations take on the responsibility of training a practicum or internship student, they know it’s a very strong potential that that’s their future employee so they have stake in the game just like we do,” Lahner said.

Cindy Holahan, director of Graduate Admission, said Carroll admission counselors at college fairs would receive inquiries in the past from students asking about graduate-level courses for psychology, and for years, the university had nothing to offer.

“It feels good to be able to finally say, ‘Yes, you can come to Carroll with aspirations to be a community leader and care for mental health and get to that end goal right here at Carroll. You don’t need a secondary place to do that'," Holahan said. "There’s a lot of pride with being able to say, ‘We can take you there’.”