Syracuse University Magazine

Lifting Lives

Lifting Lives

Falk College’s Department of Marriage and Family Therapy seeks to promote change and healing in people’s lives, addressing mental health issues through research, teaching, and providing therapy in the community

By Amy Speach

As director of clinical services in the Falk College Department of Marriage and Family Therapy, Tracey Reichert-Schimpff G’96 delights in working with student therapists and being there for those pivotal moments of discovery—instances when a student suddenly “gets it” and falls in love with the profession. Sometimes it happens when she is teaching. Other times, it occurs when she is observing a student’s session with a client and witnesses “beautiful work” in the therapy room. “When a student really connects with a client, there’s something about the therapeutic relationship that is almost palpable,” she says. “They are able to lead a client to a place they haven’t been before, a place where change and healing will happen. It’s almost like an art—your art, your skill, of being able to be therapeutic. Watching that unfold with people is beautiful.”

Preparing students to do beautiful work in the mental health profession—as clinicians, scholars, and researchers—has long been the mission of the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT), now in its 45th year as a leader in the field. Founded in the principles of social justice and social action and accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Marriage and Family Therapy Education, the department boasts one of the oldest accredited MFT master’s degree programs in the United States, as well as the only accredited MFT Ph.D. degree program in New York State. “The department has been forward thinking in much of what it has done over the years,” says Thom deLara G’75, department chair and professor of practice. He points to the curriculum for the MFT master’s degree, a robust 60-credit clinical training program that requires students have 500 hours of face-to-face client contact. Those numbers exceed the New York State licensing requirements of 45 credits and 300 clinical hours to allow for stipulations in other states and to appeal to more students.

Among the department’s recent innovations are the 2013 establishment of the country’s first dual master’s degree program in marriage and family therapy and social work, which graduated its inaugural class in 2016, and interdisciplinary certificate of advanced studies programs in trauma-informed practice and in child therapy. “In developing things like the certificate programs and the dual degree program, we’re creating opportunities for students to have specialized skill sets that put them in a good position in the marketplace for jobs,” deLara says. “That’s important to us.”

Another milestone occurred in January 2013, when the entire department moved to Peck Hall, located in downtown Syracuse. The building originally opened in 1896 as Syracuse University College of Medicine and later served as a home for University College. Today, the renovated five-story, 30,000-square-foot facility houses MFT faculty and administrative offices, classrooms, a student lounge/kitchen, and a seminar room. It is also home to the Falk College Couple and Family Therapy Center, a no-cost mental health clinic that accommodates 8,500 to 10,000 client visits a year, serving hundreds of individuals, couples, and families from the Central New York community and beyond.

The clinic features a welcoming waiting area, a children’s wing with bright rooms equipped for play therapy, and spacious counseling rooms, all designed to help clients feel safe and comfortable. As a training center for student therapists, the facility is equipped with advanced teaching and supervision technologies, including a 24-station computer lab, smart classrooms with video conferencing, and counseling rooms with digital video imaging. Additionally, Psychological Healthcare, a private group that also offers mental health services, is located on the building’s second floor. 

The Peck Hall location provides the department with an expanded community presence and allows the growing MFT program to accommodate more students, ultimately increasing the number of trained professionals offering mental health services to meet a substantial need, locally and nationally. “There are two basic reasons for mental health programs, one having to do with an obligation to care for and advocate for people who are disadvantaged in a number of different ways,” deLara says. The other has to do with the economic effects of mental health issues, which research shows are the leading cause for disability claims for adults in the country. “If we don’t attend to what is going on for people in terms of their mental health and their relationships, the impact on employers, schools, and communities is dramatic,” he says. “When we train people in marriage and family therapy, we’re responding to our humanitarian responsibility, and also identifying an unmet need that has a huge impact on how we function nationally.”

Falk College Dean Diane Lyden Murphy also affirms the significance of the department’s work, referring to MFT as “an excellent signature” for the college and the University. “It’s a beautiful facility and program doing wonderful work, and I’m very proud of the place,” says Murphy ’67, G’76, G’78, G’83. “I can’t imagine a better place to get a clinical degree and be able to work with needy populations at the same time. For people who go into this field, it’s all about helping others. So I’m pleased this is such a model program that also serves the community well.”

Pointing Out the Positives

That powerful desire to assist others helps keep master’s degree students going strong during what can be a very intense two-year program—one that integrates challenging coursework with a great deal of hands-on experience, including 20 months of clinical training at the Couple and Family Therapy Center and a 12-month internship with a community agency. “It’s an immersive experience, with students taking courses in theory—diversity, different life cycles, or research methods, for example—and that is overlapped with working with clients, where they can begin to see how the two go hand-in-hand in the world of practice,” Reichert-Schimpff says.

Supervision plays a major role in students’ development and takes many forms, from watching more advanced students through one-way mirrors to having their supervisor offer input regarding a video recording of a session with a client. Students receive a minimum of 100 hours of clinical supervision—one hour for every five hours of client contact—in addition to participating in 30 hours of teaming with other students in direct observation of therapy. Supervisors are members of the MFT faculty and clinical staff, all licensed in marriage and family therapy in New York State and approved supervisors with the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy. “Supervision is a cornerstone of how we provide both quality training for our students and high-level service to our clients,” Reichert-Schimpff says. “It’s not just about checking the boxes and doing what the task is. It’s making sure that as a human being, as a therapist, you are in tune with yourself and how your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, family, and values might come into play in the therapeutic work. That’s something we’re always helping students be aware of and work through to become better clinicians.”

According to Meghan Harris G’17, the supervision process was a significant factor in her growth as a therapist in training. She came to the MFT program from a position at a mental health in-patient hospital in Buffalo, where she realized she wanted to learn more about how to be helpful, especially in working with people who experienced trauma. Toward that goal, she pursued the certificate of advanced study in trauma-informed practice. She also served on the department’s Trans Team, helping provide mental health services to transgender people. “I really liked having Daran [Shipman] as a supervisor,” Harris says. “If he had something negative to say, there was always a positive along with it. We called it a compliment sandwich. And that was what I needed—somebody to point out the positives that I couldn’t see on my own. It was part of building my confidence. Supervision really helped with that, with getting comfortable in the [therapy] room and with who I am in the room. That was key.”

Theresa Jenkins also credits supervision as a vital component of the program’s overall excellence. Having completed the master’s degree program in four years as a part-time student while also working full time as an academic advisor for graduate students at the Whitman School, she is especially grateful for the ongoing support of faculty and fellow students. “It’s not an easy program, but it’s an outstanding one, and I’ve been blessed to be a part of it,” says Jenkins ’00, G’03, G’13, G’17, who holds a bachelor’s degree in family and community services and a certificate of advanced studies in addiction from Falk and a master’s degree from the School of Education. “It’s about time management and communication. It’s about staying in touch with your faculty, who are therapists themselves. And it’s about knowing yourself. The focus while we are here is to help people. We’re student therapists. If I can’t take care of myself, how am I going to help someone else?”

Learning What Helps

The question of how to help is at the heart of all the department’s work. Having a vigorous research agenda is a critical component to developing answers. “We’re a small department, but we do a lot of research, and regularly involve our master’s and doctoral students in that,” deLara says. “We’re not just guessing what’s the best way to work with people, but asking what does the evidence tell us, and what kinds of research can we be involved in that will generate new models to help people?”

He points to the work of professor of practice Dyane Watson, who partners with the University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families in exploring the experiences of active duty servicemen and -women and their family members in relation to delivery of mental health services. That research helped inform a new clinical course focused on therapy with veterans and military families, offered for the first time in January.

In her research, MFT faculty member Rashmi Gangamma focuses on the experiences of refugees to learn how family therapists can be more helpful to them. “It’s a given that these families have experienced trauma. They escaped situations where if they didn’t leave they would have been persecuted,” she says. “What stood out in my study was that as they resettled in the U.S., family relationships were central in how they made meaning of their suffering.” Gangamma is now partnering with a colleague to study ethnic identity and loyalty in refugee families.  

Another example is research led by Linda Stone Fish, Falk Family Professor of Marriage and Family Therapy, to develop the Collaborative Change Model for helping therapists work with couples and families affected by trauma. “If someone is in a situation where violence is going on, and they are feeling hyper-aroused and endangered all the time, how do you help them to calm down and be engaged and connected—to be their best selves despite the chronic trauma around them?” says Stone Fish, who travels internationally to present the Collaborative Change Model. “What’s distinctive about our model, which is one of the reasons it’s so useful, is the collaborative part of it. Everything we do in therapy, we tell our clients we’re doing. And we’re asking, ‘How can we make this a place that feels good to you?’” 

A renowned expert in couple and family therapy, Stone Fish is also director of the MFT doctoral program, whose alumni are leading scholars and researchers across the field. She currently works with four doctoral students, whose areas of interest include cultural diversity, trauma-informed practice, and LGBTQ populations, and looks forward to seeing the department continue to thrive and expand in numbers and offerings. “What’s been incredibly unique about Syracuse University’s marriage and family therapy department is that we have a long history of helping and interfacing with the community in really powerful ways,” Stone Fish says. “That relationship is even more important now that we have a free center that’s actually a part of the community, and will continue to grow.” «



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Student therapists in the Department of Marriage and Family Therapy master’s degree program spend 500 hours directly engaging with clients as part of their training.

Photo by Susan Kahn  NOTE: To protect client privacy, several arranged photos are used in this article.



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Students receive a minimum of 100 hours of clinical supervision, which is a cornerstone of their training and development.

Photo by Susan Kahn



Affirmative Therapy for Transgender People and Their Families

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In 1999, marriage and family therapy professor Deborah Coolhart G’01, G’06 was one of few Syracuse-area mental health professionals in private practice working with transgender clients. As word spread about the valuable resource she offered, she began receiving more requests for help than she could accommodate alone. “Transgender people have a unique dependence on mental health professionals who provide letters of support for them to receive necessary medical treatments such as hormones and surgery,” she says. “Also, many of the people who called me did not have the financial resources to obtain private practice therapy.”

To better meet the needs of transgender people, Coolhart established the Transgender Treatment Team (now called the Trans Team) in 2004. At the start, the team consisted of three student therapists in the marriage and family therapy (MFT) program serving about five clients through the Falk College Couple and Family Therapy Center, which offers free services. “Now we have 19 master’s students and four doctoral students, and about 30 percent of our clinic client base is trans clients,” Coolhart says. “Some students are coming to the MFT program specifically because of the Trans Team, because they have an interest in working with trans clients or with the LGBT community in general. This is a way for them to gain experience.”

Students on the Trans Team receive specialized training from Coolhart and clinic supervisor Daran Shipman G’10 to provide gender-affirmative therapy for transgender people and their families and assist in the readiness process for medical gender transition. “We train students on the specific challenges trans people face with regard to family acceptance and self-acceptance,” Coolhart says. “A lot of times we’re working with parents of a transgender youth to help them better understand what their kid is experiencing and what some of the benefits and risks are in moving forward with a medical transition.” 

The Trans Team allows MFT students an opportunity to engage in thoughtful ways with a vulnerable, insightful, and resilient population. For Meghan Harris G’17, that’s been invaluable. Being on the team enriched her experience in the master’s degree program and sparked her passion for working with LGBTQ clients, especially teens. It also inspired her to help organize two cosmetics drives and a makeup workshop for members of the Syracuse-area transgender community. “It is so fulfilling to hear people’s stories and give someone a space to be heard,” Harris says. “For some trans clients, this is the first place where they’re validated in who they are. So to be even a small part of their journey is really special.”

For doctoral student Tristan Martin, being able to study with faculty who have expertise in working with the LGBTQ population was a big part of the decision to come to Syracuse. “I wanted to pursue more research and focus on mental health and well-being within the transgender population,” says Martin, who holds a master’s degree in MFT from Mercer University in Georgia. “You couldn’t find a better opportunity to do that at any other school.”  

Both Coolhart and Shipman take pride in the extent and quality of service offered by the Trans Team—with some clients traveling for hours to meet with a student therapist. “Most trans people struggle to find competent affirmative care,” says Shipman, a graduate of the MFT master’s degree program with expertise in working with transgender people. “I’m a transgender-identified person and I’m in a position to be helpful, as a supervisor and as a therapist. The work I do is a way for me to give back to my community—because students will take the knowledge and skill set they’ve gained here, and they will practice affirmatively and competently in cities across the U.S. and in other countries. So we are really increasing access to care. That’s important and very rewarding.”

Photo by Steve Sartori



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The cheerful and welcoming spaces in the Couple and Family Therapy Center are designed to help clients feel safe and comfortable with the therapy process.

Photo by Emily West



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Group collaboration contributes to students’ development by helping them become more aware of how their emotions, beliefs, and values come into play in their therapeutic work.

Photo by Emily West



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In working with families, students learn a variety of ways to incorporate play in the therapy room.

Photo by Susan Kahn



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The center offers free confidential therapy services to families, couples, and individuals in the Central New York community and beyond.



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