By D.K. Christi
We’ve all heard some version of “buck up and get over it,” but if you are hurting or in the midst of healing, and “buck up” doesn’t work, Florida Gulf Coast University has another option. The new Community Counseling Center at FGCU seeks to fill an important gap in the healthy lifestyle portfolio: affordable and accessible mental health counseling.
The center opened in November 2019 and serves both the university community and the larger community of Southwest Florida. New clients are currently being accepted at this conveniently located building on campus with dedicated parking.
“The vision was two-fold,” explains Community Counseling Center Director Alise Bartley. “Offer a community resource for mental health counseling that was affordable and accessible to anyone in the community. Also, provide an opportunity for advanced level master’s degree students in the mental health counseling program to put their knowledge into practice with internships.”
Intern counselors operate under the supervision of their FGCU instructors. The center serves a community need for greater access to affordable mental and behavioral health services for individuals of all ages, regardless of socioeconomic or immigration status, Bartley adds.
She has been at the leading edge of FGCU’s new endeavor since the initiative began four years ago. Bartley came to FGCU following a highly credentialed mental health career in Ohio, including a doctorate degree and administration of mental health programs. She and her spouse, David, made a major financial contribution to FGCU that helped bring the vision for a Community Counseling Center to fruition.
“I have been involved from inception to completion,” notes Bartley. “I instruct and supervise the interns and review with them individually, and as a group, regarding the counseling goals and progress for each client.”
Intern counselor Doug Learned spent 26 years as a pastor and is now completing his master’s degree in mental health counseling to become licensed as a Florida mental health professional. Working at the counseling center allows him to gain practical experience and apply the skills he learns in class to help clients dealing with various stages of life: young adult, middle aged or beyond.
All phases of life present challenges to finding balance with competing priorities. These challenges can include depression, anxiety, trauma, relationship and family functioning, career and life transitions, school performance, and parenting issues.
“Many of my peers and I also face competing priorities that we need to manage well, so we can relate,” says Learned.
Assistant Director Julieta Wenk supervises and instructs a diverse group of student interns. Three out of 10 are bilingual, as is Wenk, who has roots in Argentina and is herself a graduate of FGCU’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.
“Bicultural is an important aspect of our counseling,” says Wenk. “Sometimes a feeling gets lost in translation. There may be hesitation associated with seeking help that cultural understanding may alleviate.”
FGCU’s intern counselors are capable, flexible and overall “amazing,” she adds. As soon as the counseling center opened, all available appointments were filled, serving 50 clients to date. The lobby and the counseling rooms are designed to be comfortable and reduce anxiety. A play therapy room is available for children and adults with specific counseling goals.
Intern counselors are dedicated to meeting client needs and to their own skill development.
“Our intern counselors are diverse in every respect,” adds Wenk. “They cover the range of demographics and gender from ages 20 to late 50s and are ethnically diverse. They have experience in pastoral work, business, corrections and related fields, but each chose mental health as their career focus.”
Broken hearts, anxiety and depression need repair, just like broken bones, flus and other illnesses requiring help from trained professionals. Unfortunately, many Southwest Florida residents do not have the resources to make mental health care affordable. Fees at the FGCU Community Counseling Center begin at $25 an hour and scale down based on a client’s hourly wage rate — the hourly wage equals the hourly counseling fee. A person’s word is sufficient to access services; pay stubs and identification documents are not needed. Insurance is not accepted.
That takes care of affordability, but what about accessibility for those who don’t have flexible work schedules? Good news: intern counselors schedule evening and weekend hours. Clients complete a confidential health history and indicate current counseling needs. Length of therapy is limited to a maximum of two semesters, approximately 32 weeks. Clients requiring long-term treatment, inpatient care or crisis management will be referred to other mental health facilities in the community.
Initial counseling and a continuum of care may prevent issues from becoming overwhelming. According to Wenk, the main purpose of the counseling center is to assist clients in becoming aware of the strengths, resources and skills they possess and to help them use those strengths to overcome present and future challenges.
The Community Counseling Center’s website is: fgcu.edu/mariebcollege/counseling/communitycounseling. Appointment may be made by calling (239)745-4777.