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Clinic helps students with alcohol, substance use issues turn over 'new leaf'

  • New Leaf:
    New Leaf:  Rick Gressard (left), chancellor professor of counseling education and coordinator of the master’s degree program in addiction counseling, and Amy Williams, a third-year doctoral student, help run the clinic.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The William & Mary School of Education focuses on more than just learning that takes place in K-12 or college classrooms.

In a quiet clinic on the second floor of the Monticello Avenue building, graduate students help other W&M students – both undergraduate and graduate – explore their use of alcohol and other substances. And as those learn, so do the graduate students assisting them, gaining invaluable experience and insight that will help them better serve their clients for years to come.

“I am just such a better counselor from having that opportunity,” said Amy Williams.

A collaborative approach

Williams, a third-year doctoral student in the counselor education program, is one of two student co-directors of the New Leaf Clinic. Started in 2009, the clinic currently serves between 250 and 300 students per year, some of whom are referred by the Office of Student Conduct for alcohol or drug sanctions and some who volunteer themselves for the programs.

The clinic offers three programs: the Alcohol Skills Training Program (ASTP), a single, group session; Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students (BASICS), two individual sessions; and the Six Sessions program, which can be voluntary and includes six individual sessions with the option to continue counseling. Most of the referrals go into the first two programs, and about 50-60 of those referrals per year continue into the Six Sessions program.

Rick Gressard, chancellor professor of counseling education and coordinator of the master’s degree program in addiction counseling, serves as the director of the clinic, working closely with Williams and her co-director, Catie Green, as well as the Office of Student Conduct and the Office of Health Promotion. Students in the two-year, master’s degree program in counseling at the School of Education volunteer as counselors at the clinic under the supervision of the directors.

All of the counselors are trained in the use of “motivational interviewing” (MI). The research-backed approach is something the counselors have found to be particularly effective among students because of its supportive aspects.

“One of the hallmarks of MI is eliciting – and that’s the keyword, eliciting – motivation from the client rather than providing it externally,” said Gressard. “It’s based on respect for the client and recognition that the true motivation has got to come from within … We respect where the client is at that time and go from there.”

The approach allows the students and counselors to collaborate, said Williams.

“When the students come in to talk, we listen, and we ask them, ‘What do you think about it?’ rather than telling them anything,” Williams said. “To have a space to just sort of talk about what they are thinking about their substance use may not be something they’ve ever done before.”

Heart and soul

The work that the volunteer counselors do at New Leaf does not count as the internship they are required to complete as part of the 60-hour degree program, although their hours at the clinic may supplement the off-site hours. Still, all but one student over the past five years have chosen to volunteer at the clinic, said Gressard.

“We’ve had a string of students who are dedicated to it and put their heart and soul into this thing,” he said.

Williams knows why. She began her association with the clinic as a master’s degree student, working with the BASICS program her first year and the Six Sessions program her second. While in the master’s program, she also interned with Bacon Street, a substance abuse treatment center, and was a weekend employee of Williamsburg Place, an addiction treatment center. Williams said that working with New Leaf not only had a “huge impact” on those roles, but it also allowed her to build a strong bond with the other members of her cohort as they learned from each other.

As a doctoral student, co-directing New Leaf has given Williams a chance to both conduct research and gain much more supervisory experience than her peers in other programs, she said.

“I am so grateful for everything that New Leaf has allowed me to do,” Williams said.

A unique resource

Part of what makes New Leaf successful is Gressard’s leadership and the clinic’s close relationship with the Office of the Dean of Students, Williams said.

Gressard consulted with Dave Gilbert, associate dean of students and director of student conduct, when he was first thinking about creating the clinic. Sarah Menefee, assistant director of health promotion, has since helped the clinic expand its offerings from one program to three.

The clinic is unique on college campuses, said Gilbert, adding that he knows of no other universities that offer a similar on-campus resource with this scope of offerings. Having the clinic at W&M is often more convenient for students and less expensive, and it also allows students to explore potential issues in greater depth, he added. Because of the success of the clinic, Gilbert may help present it as a model at a national conference.

“I think our really strong relationship with the dean’s office and the fact that they trust us to provide these services to students has made a big difference to students,” said Williams. “And also, just anecdotally, the students themselves, I think it’s a service they really appreciate. So when students are referred, there’s sort of this understanding that they’re coming and it’s not a punishment, per se. It’s an opportunity for them to talk and do some reflecting on change.”

A win-win

The success of the clinic may be seen in part in the number of students who choose to continue using the services of the New Leaf clinic beyond the Six Sessions program, Gressard said.

“We’re also finding that they are telling their friends that New Leaf is a cool place to go,” Gressard said. “They’re finding it supportive and useful and recommending it to their friends and going for more sessions. That, to me, has been one of our great successes – building our reputation on the campus as a place that’s not confrontational but a place for people to explore and in a safe environment and with a sensitive counselor.”

Students who are considering visiting the clinic should know that it’s completely free for voluntary referrals and that they can’t be reported for seeking treatment for alcohol or substance use, Williams said.

“We really are here for the students,” she said. “We’re not going to judge them or tell them what to do or tell them they’ve done something wrong. We’re just going to listen and collaborate with them to develop a healthier relationship with alcohol or whatever it is that they want to change.”

Just as the clinic has been effective for the undergraduates who use its services, it has also been effective for the graduate students who have helped run it. A qualitative analysis showed that students who worked with the clinic left the master’s program with a much higher level of confidence in their counseling abilities, Gressard said.

“In my mind, it’s been a win-win,” he said.