Creating a model for mental health in Utah: An inside look at SUU’s new Psy.D. program

In September, Southern Utah University made history by welcoming its first cohort of doctoral students. The Doctorate of Psychology in Clinical Psychology program is the first doctoral program for SUU and the first Psy.D. program in the entire state of Utah.

When they graduate, the group of 10 SUU students will be the first in the state of Utah to receive a degree in clinical psychology at the doctoral level. That means the graduates will be qualified not only to see patients but also to teach psychology at a post-secondary level.

The new students will spend an estimated five years in the program, which will include a year assisting in a clinical internship where they will aid a licensed psychologist in seeing patients while on campus.

Dr. Steve Barney, the program’s director with 25 years of experience as a psychologist at SUU, says that the program will benefit not only the community but also current students through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), the university’s mental health resource center.

“Our students right now are working in graduate assistantships helping support mental health initiatives across campus,” Barney said.
In their second year, they’ll do practicum training. In their third year, they’ll have the opportunity to work in the CAPS office.
“They’ll be working at least 10 hours a week seeing clients, many of whom are going to be SUU students,” Barney said.

Barney believes the program is necessary for Utah because of the state’s lack of mental health services in rural areas similar to Iron County. When he began at SUU 13 years ago, resources for mental health were sparse.

“There were 12 psychologists in Iron County, and 10 of them worked here at SUU,” Barney said, “which left very few helping to provide services to the community.”

Many of the students in the program have experienced the effects of the lack of resources in their hometowns, which is why they were interested in joining the field of psychology. Orlando Rodriguez, a current Psy.D. program student, joined for this reason, as he is from the rural town of Monroe, Utah.

“Coming from a small town myself, my experiences have shown me there is an incredible need,” Rodriguez said. “People have to drive hours and wait weeks for appointments to meet with professionals, and we want to change that for people.”

Rodriguez also believes that Utah is on the right track in terms of creating a positive environment to address mental health.

“I think we are learning to normalize mental health, at least moving in the right direction, and it is only going to increase our needs even more,” Rodriguez explained. “As students in this program, we hope to provide the resources people need to help with their lives.”

Alexana Stavros, another Psy.D. student, also plans to use the knowledge gained from their courses to help the many silent minority groups here in Utah.

“I hope to continue working in southern Utah with LGBTQ+ youth and other underrepresented populations,” Stavros said. “It is my dream to create and contribute to a healthier, kinder, more inclusive community.”

The process of creating such a program took years to accomplish. However, with support from the state of Utah, the psychology department was able to fulfill its mission.
Garrett Strosser, the department chair of psychology, was one of many who helped build the program from the ground up. Strosser explained how the idea of the program progressed after brainstorming ideas for classes over a decade ago.

“The department had been thinking about graduate programs for a long time,” Strosser explained, “with both a combination of what would help students and what kind of degrees would help them get the kind of jobs that they want, but also to address mental health issues, especially in the state of Utah.”

However, the project was officially put into action four years ago when public support for resources skyrocketed due to Gov. Spencer Cox’s new approach to mental health.

“There was support at the university in ways we had never seen before,” Strosser said, “and the state was supporting mental health initiatives. The governor wanted universities to help address mental health issues.”

Because of the success of creating this program, Barney believes that other schools can follow in SUU’s footsteps.

“Especially in rural areas like this, there’s a shortage of psychologists and specialized services across the country in these kinds of areas,” Barney said. “I hope we can serve as a model to other universities in similar areas.”

Article by: Luke McKenzie
Photos courtesy of Asher Swan and Luke McKenzie

This article was originally published in the October 2022 edition of the University Journal. Pick up a free copy at any of the stands on SUU campus.