“The state of mental health in Oregon is really bad, and here in Salem, it’s even worse,” says Dr. Lori Schelske, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Corban University. Throughout the city, counseling practices are full, with lengthy waiting lists Many clinicians have stopped accepting health insurance and low fees are nearly impossible to find,” Schelske says.
In the middle of this desperate climate sits Salem Free Clinics, an organization committed to providing healthcare at no cost to the uninsured of the greater-Salem community. And at the heart of their clinical counseling service rests the compassionate care of Corban University’s own students. In 2011, Salem Free Clinics formed a partnership with Corban University and for the last ten years, Corban’s graduate counseling students have provided counseling services for community members with mental health needs.
As a part of Corban’s Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, students have the opportunity to give back to their community while gaining crucial practical work experience and supervision hours, working as intern counselors for Salem Free Clinic’s counseling center. “2021 marks the 10-year anniversary of the Salem Free Counseling Clinic,” says Salem Free Clinics’ CEO, Trina Fowler. “Its consistency and excellent care of our patient population has been a tremendous gift to Salem Free Clinics and to our community.”
Through this partnership, in line with the mission of the Salem Free Clinic, students are able to reach a diverse population that is often overlooked or exists on the fringe of society. “The clients that come in are the unserved and underserved as far as mental health is concerned,” Schelske says. “They are people who don’t have mental health insurance or are underinsured. We see people that are ranging from just trying to support a family with no health insurance, to those experiencing homelessness.”
“I am so grateful for the professionalism and the vulnerability Corban students show their clients,” says Fowler. “We hear nothing but positive remarks about the wonderful care people receive through this program. People who utilize this resource don’t have the finances to go anywhere else, so this clinic is such a blessing to so many.”
For Corban’s aspiring counseling professionals, the experience has been equally rewarding. “The clientele at the Free Clinics is very diverse,” says program graduate Jurgen Weissschuh, who now works at a counseling practice in Albany, Oregon. “Some of my clients were close to being homeless, others were dealing with severe trauma. We saw clients with maybe a rougher story than most. But I wouldn’t have wanted to miss any of it.”
For fellow program member, Lin Brownell, her experience was foundational to the work that she now does running her own private practice. “I’m grateful to have had the chance to work with a variety of different clients with different issues,” she says. “Because I had experienced such a variety, I felt well prepared to open my own private practice. Even this year, 5 years later, I drew upon an experience with a client at the Free Clinic to help guide me with a new client.”
The impact a Corban student can make on the community through their partnership with Salem Free Clinics can be literally life changing. “What people experience in counseling or what they take away can affects their relationships, their jobs, their self-worth, and frees people up to perform better in the workplace and have more vibrant, healthy relationships,” says Schelske. “It’s why I’m so passionate about turning out counselors that are not only strong Christians, but who are also excellent clinical counselors.”
In turn, Salem Free Clinics offers the opportunity for students of Corban’s graduate counseling program to secure their required supervision hours. “For a lot of students, they really have to try and scrap for their supervision,” says Schelske. “For many, it only ends up being administrative supervision—how to fill out paperwork—but at Salem Free Clinics, our supervision is really focused on counseling and clinical skills.”
The result is a program that serves students where they are, equipping them for their future careers, while also providing a platform for them to give back while they learn. “The transition into practicum at the Salem Free clinic felt very organic,” Weissschuh says. “Dr. Schelske helped us to feel comfortable quickly and was excellent in helping us grow into our new role as counselors.”
For Brownell, it was the opportunity to interact with fellow student-interns that made the difference. “We regularly were able to share our experiences and could offer ideas and encouragement, providing a sense of community,” she says. “We were never left wondering when we would have our next supervision time, as some interns experience elsewhere.”
Referred to as a “living lab” by the Corban counseling faculty, cohorts also meet for weekly group devotionals, and have uncommon access to professional supervision. “I love supervising interns. I love mentoring. I love being at the site with our students all day long and having those really close relationships,” Schelske says. “I can be interrupted from anything, and I love that because that’s my main job is to be there for them.”
As the power of availability, empathy, and intentionality is modelled by Schelske and Corban’s faculty, Corban students are able to extend that model to their own professional development, sitting with clients that often come from traumatic backgrounds or difficult current life situations. They are taught to engage meaningfully with people that are in desperate need of help. “I had days, weeks, or with some clients, even months with seemingly no movement,” Weissschuh says. “Then, all of a sudden, I would have a new insight through my reading or supervision, and it helped me take step forward. Momentum started to pick up and the client was able to open up.”
It is the process of patient engagement that often presents the greatest struggle to counseling interns. Regularly dealing with clients that are angry, belligerent, or locked in past trauma, the job of a clinical counselor is difficult in the best of circumstances. “It’s hard for the counselor to learn how to increase the space that can contain and love those that society would often deem unlovable,” Schelske says. “It takes work, and requires that a counselor be committed to working on themselves. And that’s one thing that I think distinguishes our Corban graduates, that commitment to the finetuning of using yourself as an instrument of your work. It’s transformative. In our program and at the clinic, we try to provide a space that helps them to grow into being able to do that.”
The faith-integration that undergirds Corban’s clinical counseling program provides the platform for this kind of transformation. “While we can’t always expressly share our faith, we can learn to be Jesus in the room with them, even if they are not believers,” Schelske says. “We encourage our students to pray before and after session as well as silently as they actively listen, knowing that God is working out His plans for them and their client.”
In an industry where burnout runs high, Corban students are taught to rely on their faith, inviting God into the process. “We remind them that at the end of a session, they can put all of their stuff on God’s plate, and He will give them His peace,” Schelske says. “And isn’t that a great trade? You may have to do it a hundred times a day, but we have that supernatural help.”
Considering the dire state of mental health in the Salem community and surrounding areas, it is this added perspective—the unspoken prayers during sessions and the knowledge of true redemption—that offers lasting hope. It is this same hope that Corban counseling professionals like Brownell and Weissschuh are committed to extending to their clients.
“Aligning ourselves with the plans and purposes of our Creator is what brings freedom, hope, and life,” Weissschuh says. Brownell agrees. “The value I am able to offer because of my time at Corban is the ability to help those clients who wish to dive deeper into the intricacies of their way of being in the world,” she adds. “They are able to learn a new way of navigating life.”
For Schelske, she considers Corban’s partnership with Salem Free Clinics to be integral to Corban’s gospel-driven mission. It’s why her extensive role in supervision has become a nonnegotiable priority. In every client, community, and culture lies a need for holistic healing and transformation. And Schelske witnesses it every day. “Our students are loving so many hurting people the way that God loves them,” she says. “That’s what is truly transformative.”