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Student-staffed Whitworth clinic to offer low-cost counseling

Doug Jones talks about Whitworth’s new Marriage and Family Therapy Wellness Center, which will offer low-cost counseling for Spokane-area families and individuals. Jones will manage the center’s daily operations. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Doug Jones talks about Whitworth’s new Marriage and Family Therapy Wellness Center, which will offer low-cost counseling for Spokane-area families and individuals. Jones will manage the center’s daily operations. (Tyler Tjomsland)

A new Whitworth University clinic, staffed by students learning to help clients navigate the pitfalls of marriage and family life, aims to help fill a gap in affordable services by offering low-cost therapy to clients.

The Marriage and Family Therapy Wellness Center, opening Wednesday, also aims to fill a need for students in the university’s master’s program in marriage and family therapy who need a place to practice what they learn in the classroom.

The clinic will charge $25 a session, said Doug Jones, a visiting assistant professor of education who’ll manage the center’s day-to-day operations and guide students as they work with clients. That’s roughly what a client with insurance would shell out for a co-pay – but insurance rarely covers marriage counseling, Jones said, and that prevents many people with marital problems from seeking help.

“We’re hoping to heal marriages and couples and families as well as individuals,” he said.

Low-cost counseling options are limited in Spokane, Jones said, partly because grant money that funded such programs disappeared as the economy suffered.

The economic problems that hurt funding for low-cost counseling programs also place stress on families, said Roberta Wilburn, Whitworth’s associate dean for graduate studies in education, who will oversee the center.

Many also struggle with the effects of repeated deployments on military families and the effects on children when parents leave for extend periods to find work, such as those who go to work in North Dakota’s oil fields.

Meanwhile, some school counselors, pastors and others are unable to provide long-term or in-depth counseling, and don’t know where to refer students and families, particularly those who can’t afford the sometimes hefty cost of therapy, Wilburn said.

The clinic imposes no income requirements for clients. “We will take whoever wants to come,” Wilburn said.

While striving to meet clients’ needs, the center will also serve Whitworth students who need practice working with clients.

Finding clinical placements for students is difficult in Spokane, where multiple universities are training students in the “helping professions,” Jones said. Fewer placements are available than students who need them, he said.

While they’ll meet with students, Jones said, clients at Whitworth’s new clinic also will have the benefit of his nearly 20 years of experience. Jones is a licensed marriage and family therapist, and mental health counselor.

Jones will use cameras to observe every student-led therapy session from a separate office, providing suggestions to guide the session through a live audio feed plugged into the student-therapist’s ear. 

The graduate students in Whitworth’s marriage and family therapy program – there are 18, but the program plans to grow – apply a different lens to their patients than a mental health counselor would apply.

Whether clients come in as couples, families or individuals, marriage and family therapists provide help from a “systemic perspective,” Jones said. “So we look at inter-relational issues rather that just what’s happening in the individual.”

That systemic approach drew student Jessica Kaluza to the Whitworth program. 

“We do operate as individuals, but we’re within a bigger context of our family and our community, and we’re affected by our families,” she said.

Students will begin to provide therapy about halfway through their second year in their program. They’ll have learned the basic theories behind counseling, performed “mock counseling” sessions in class, and worked on the basic skills involved in a therapist’s job.

Wilburn said the student-therapists are learning a blend of science and art. They learn science and theory behind human behavior, but they also have to figure out how to apply what they learn in unpredictable situations.

“When you get out there, you start working with clients, you’re going to find some clients don’t look like anything you’ve ever read in your textbook,” Wilburn said. “So you’re going to have to be able to be creative, be able to pull from several different theories and put it together, and then use who you are as an individual to make an effective decision for helping clients to be able to move forward and change.”