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Positive progress

Focusing on strengths, students counsel Kansans while earning service credits

by MIKE KRINGS

Shortly before the Positive Psychotherapy Clinic was to open on the Lawrence campus, the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to work and learn from home. But that temporary delay enabled the clinic to reach far beyond campus and provide hundreds of hours of free counseling services to people across the state who never would have been able to make it to KU before. The clinic now has a new group of graduate students providing counseling to Kansans for a number of concerns, all while focusing on what is right in people’s lives.

The counseling psychology program in the School of Education and Human Sciences has long required students to start seeing clients in their second year. Brian Cole, associate professor of educational psychology and director of training in the doctoral program, says there were plans to open a clinic to see clients in Joseph R. Pearson Hall about six weeks before the pandemic upended everyone’s lives. Even though campus has reopened, there are no plans to go back to in-person services in the clinic. A telehealth format that complies with federal law restricting release of medical information has proved to have a far broader reach than eastern Kansas and enables students and faculty to serve far more people. So far, the clinic has provided more than 800 hours of services to people across Kansas.

Counseling psychology master’s students are required to complete 240 hours of service, which will soon rise to 280. The clinical program helps students complete required training without adding another year of schooling.

“I started thinking of this clinic as a way to get more hours for our students while providing a service to the state. We do the traditional therapy, but the way we approach treatment is a bit different,” says Cole, c’06, g’08. “The idea of positive psychotherapy is there is more to life than being symptom-free. It’s not about living in neutral.”

Traditional psychotherapy focuses on treating symptoms. For example, if a person were experiencing depression rating at a negative six—meaning they had significant symptoms but were still able to make it through the average day—the goal might be to get them to a zero, meaning they did not experience symptoms, but they were not thriving or making positive gains either. Positive psychotherapy works with clients to focus on their strengths (what they do well, what is going well in their lives) and use those positive factors to set goals, work toward them and use strengths to address areas of concern.

Students in the program have provided services for people dealing with pandemic-related stress as well as traditional concerns like depression, anxiety, divorce, academic stress and related areas. And KU’s Positive Psychotherapy Clinic, among the first of its kind in the nation, has proved to be effective: Evaluation of clients has shown that about 70% have made significant progress in their eight-week program, well above the traditional average, Cole says.

Brian Cole

Clients who live as far away as Garden City, about 350 miles from Lawrence, check in weekly to gauge progress. At the completion of the program, counselors can make referrals to other therapists if clients would like and also plan a one-month follow-up. About 50 graduate students have taken part in the program so far, and an additional 15 provided assistance as the clinic renewed services in February. Anyone interested in taking part can inquire at the clinic’s website: ampp.ku.edu/current-projects/clinic. Clients must be an adult living in Kansas.

KU has long been a leader in positive psychology and its application in positive psychotherapy. The late Rick Snyder was a pioneer in the area; he and one of his mentees, the late Shane Lopez, g’97, PhD’99, were both faculty members and highly respected in the field. For his part in launching the Positive Psychotherapy Clinic as well as research and service in the field, Cole recently was awarded the American Psychological Association Society for Counseling Shane J. Lopez Award for Professional Contributions in Positive Psychology.

“It means a lot, especially being named for my mentor,” Cole says of the award. “I learned about hope therapy, counseling psychology and so much more from Shane here at KU. Things have come full circle in a lot of ways.”

Cole, who leads the clinic with Kristen Bast Hensley, c’01, g’06, PhD’08, associate professor of the practice and training director of the counseling psychology master’s program, says the clinic is entirely grant-funded. The hope is to work with University and community partners to secure permanent funding in order to meet the need for counseling and mental health services across the state.

The students who are now learning about positive psychology and positive psychotherapy have taken the practice into their professional careers in Veterans Affairs Hospitals, college counseling centers, private practices and other areas. Recent graduates often have training their supervisors have not received and are able to establish the practice in their places of work.

Meanwhile, on KU’s campus, counseling psychology students will continue to reach out across the state.

“Focusing on what is right with people can be a meaningful way to reduce stress and suffering,” Cole says. “A lot of people don’t have the money, time or transportation to get to therapy, and we’ve been able to eliminate a lot of barriers and help people we never would have been able to before. There’s a ton of need out there. And while this was all very new two years ago, now it’s commonplace in almost every practice site. One thing the pandemic has shown is telehealth is effective and it’s here to stay.”

Krings is a public affairs officer
in the KU News Service.

Top photograph by Earl Richardson; portrait by Steve Puppe

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