When Hurricane Katrina hit the New Orleans area in 2005, it traumatized not only its victims but the psyche of the community itself. Children who lived through the evacuation and upheaval continue to feel the impact more than a decade later, as do thousands of other citizens struggling with mental health issues in a city that’s still recovering from one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
And yet, until recently there were no Doctor of Clinical Psychology programs outside of Baton Rouge, La., more than 80 miles from the heart of the devastation. Recognizing the need to rebuild the city’s mental health infrastructure post-Katrina, leaders from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology (TCSPP) forged a partnership with historically black Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA) in late 2013 to launch a Psy.D. program right in New Orleans.
Mississippi native and Air Force veteran Kristin Jones Tew, who joined TCSPP’s first cohort of 16 students at XULA in the fall of 2015, says she had been waiting for years for a doctorate program like this to become available.
“The Chicago School being here is huge for this state,” Tew says. “Hopefully we can get the word out that this program is here. I would love to see more young psychologists come through these doors.”
Tew’s own path to a psychology career was an unconventional one. A severe knee injury playing sports in the Air Force made her ineligible for deployment overseas, relegating the pilot training candidate to a desk job. So Tew left the Air Force after the birth of her first child to devote her energy to a different kind of service.
“My husband is a minister. I met him while I was active duty. In this new role as a minister’s wife, I began to see that I had a gift for being able to discern the depth of people’s struggles, and really help them talk through their problems,” she explains. “That’s how I went from serving our country to serving the mental health needs of our community.”
Soon after Katrina hit New Orleans and Tew’s own rural Gulf Coast community in Mississippi, she and her husband decided to move their growing family closer to where help was needed most—setting up a new life in a Louisiana parish out beyond the New Orleans airport, a region that continues to suffer.
“The Mississippi River separates our parish, and on our side, we didn’t have any counseling services available to help people through these hard times,” says Tew, explaining how she worked with her husband’s church to found The WellSpring Center, a nonprofit counseling facility. “Currently we have two other counselors working for us and about 30 clients we see based on a sliding scale fee. The goal when I complete my Psy.D. degree is to turn this into a fully functioning mental health facility.”
While that will help her immediate community, Tew says there is a critical need for more mental health services throughout the area—particularly for veterans who suffer from homelessness and addiction issues after Katrina.
“The bottom line is we have a huge shortage of clinically trained psychologists here in the New Orleans area,” she says.
The Chicago School’s partnership with XULA is part of the solution.
While Tew and her fellow students in the inaugural cohort spent their first year in the classroom, they are now able to complete practicums at outpatient centers and mental health clinics such as the one where Tew has been working with the LSU Healthcare Network’s Behavioral Sciences Center. The program will conclude with a full-year internship, providing even more hands-on training for the next generation of psychologists.
“Frequently I have clients present with mental health conditions that are treatable with medication, yet they are unable to get competent mental health care, diagnosis, and medication. Until they receive proper diagnosis and medication, sometimes our ability to give them the therapy they need is limited. We need more providers for that,” Tew says. “This is why having this program in New Orleans is so important. It truly has been a blessing, not just for me but for the entire community.”