/ April 14, 2021

Mental Health Service Corps: A new generation of mental health clinicians

Karen Noyes hadn’t been on the job long when a doctor first came to talk to her about one of her patients, Valeria. This kind of meeting is typical for a member of the Mental Health Service Corps. At H+H/Metropolitan Hospital where she’s stationed, Karen regularly consults with doctors and nurses about patients who may have unmet mental health needs.

“In many of the communities we serve, therapy is not normalized, but there is tremendous respect for doctors and medical professionals,” said Karen. “So through our relationship with the doctors, we’re able to reach people like Valeria who wouldn’t seek mental healthcare on their own.”

Approaching 60, Valeria was at the hospital for a routine physical. But during the depression screening that is part of all standard health assessments at behavioral health and primary care NYC Health + Hospital sites, Valeria began talking to her doctor about the crushing stress she was under, eventually revealing that she cried every day. That’s when Valeria’s doctor paid Karen a visit, and they quickly agreed that Valeria would benefit from counseling. The doctor walked Valeria to Karen’s office and introduced them. Health professionals depend on this simple act — called a “warm hand-off” — to build trust with new patients. That shared trust is a key part of the collaborative care model that Corps Members make possible.

Karen immediately began growing that little seed of trust. Valeria saw an encouraging pattern emerge: the more she disclosed, the more support she received.

When Valeria talked about being harassed by her ex-husband, but expressed worries about police involvement because of her undocumented immigration status, Karen was able to connect her with an on-site legal services clinic to offer support. When Valeria showed some risk for suicidal thoughts, Karen worked with her to develop a safety plan. When Valeria said she hadn’t told her adult children about any of her struggles, Karen used supportive counseling and several different therapeutic interventions to help Valeria understand why.

Karen has been regularly trained in such interventions throughout her time in the Service Corps. In addition to directly serving New Yorkers in need, the Mental Health Service Corps is an intensive training program for early career clinicians. A masters-level graduate of Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, Karen’s service as a Corps Member counts toward the thousands of hours of supervised clinical care required for her licensing. At the start of 2020, Karen happily signed on to serve in a hospital setting. It was the right choice, Karen says, because she gets to serve patients like Valeria.

Through multiple counseling sessions with Karen, Valeria was able to recognize and articulate her underlying fears, many of which were related to the family she left behind in South America. Karen also helped her decide to reveal her struggles to her children, a major milestone in her recovery. Instead of feeling she was burdening her children, she felt their love and concern shine through.

Today, Valeria has seen a dramatic reduction in her symptoms. She told Karen that she has a full system of support around her: “I no longer cry every day. I told my children, and someone calls me every night. I know they care, and I feel so much better knowing there are people who are helping me.”

For Karen, that’s what the Mental Health Service Corps is all about – she has often seen how counseling can be transformative not just for her patients, but for their entire families. The experience has been transformative for Karen, too. She knows her time in the Service Corps will stay with her.

“I feel very passionate about collaborative care, about working in the community, and serving people who haven’t had easy access to mental health support. Whatever I do next, I know I’ll continue doing that.”

AT A GLANCE: Mental Health Service Corps

• Early-career clinical social workers serve thousands of highneed New Yorkers who might otherwise go without care
• Corps Members placed at over 48 clinical sites in the NYC Health + Hospital System – the largest public health system in the country
• Intensive training program, with service counting toward thousands of hours of supervised clinical care required for social work licensing

• Since the launch of the Mental Health Service Corps at NYC Health + Hospitals in January 2020, Corps Members have provided clinical services to over 2,700 New Yorkers
• 76% of Mental Health Service Corps sites are located in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas