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Counseling Psychology News

Counseling Psych students play parts in Vet Med class

June 07, 2011
Veterinary medicine student Jenny Pfendner cringed inside on the first day of her Art of Clinical Communication class when she learned that it would involve a significant amount of role-playing.

“I’d never enjoyed role-playing and usually felt that the situations were never taken seriously enough to have any sort of benefit,” said Pfendner (second from left). “Having the Counseling Psychology volunteers help us in our role-plays definitely changed my mind on the topic.”

The popular elective class gives veterinary medicine students intensive practice communicating with human clients – skills that aren’t part of their standard curriculum but that they often need in situations that can be emotional or even traumatic for the animal owner.

“That is a key piece to comprehensive care for the animal,” said Counseling Psychology faculty member Corissa Lotta, who has been leading the communications course for the past eight years as part of her joint appointment with the UW School of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s a growing movement nationally and within the school.”

The vet students learn basic counseling skills including showing empathy, breaking bad news, working with children, discussing euthanasia and handling angry clients. The course also covers compassion fatigue.

“Trying to stand in clients’ shoes as veterinarians is not taught in vet school,” said Veterinary Medicine Professor Ruthanne Chun. “(But) empathy can take you places that your medical skills can’t.”

One of the most important skills the students get out of the course is learning how to stand up as a professional – to take things professionally and not personally, Chun said.

“From my perspective, the Counseling Psychology students get to do the same thing,” she said.

The course also gives students the chance to learn the flip side of the doctor-client relationship.

“It really is the spirit of counseling psychology,” Lotta said. “It is a mutually beneficial training experience.”

Asia Thao, a second-year grad student, learned from being able to sit on the ‘other side’ and reflecting on what a client is dealing with.

“It helped me evaluate the surprising the things that can happen,” she said. “It makes you realize you’re never going to be prepared for a person’s reaction.” But after working with the veterinary students, she said she feels more ready to react and better help future clients.

“We need more of that empathy training and working with people’s emotional characteristics,” she said.

The course allows counseling psychologists to reach a broader base of clients beyond depression and other common challenges, said Counseling Psychology doctoral student Odessa Cole, who has been involved in the course for three years as a volunteer and a teaching assistant.

She even recruited her advanced undergraduate counseling psychology class to act as clients for the course this fall semester.

“It’s a different way of helping,” she said. “And it’s fun. I’ve secretly wanted to be an actress from age five.”

Cole, who has an academic interest in cross-departmental studies and a clinical focus on community mental health, said she was encouraged by the level of communication skills the veterinary medicine students showed by the end of the course.

“I’m very interested in community level psychology and how our field can be helpful (in other realms),” Cole said. “Counseling psychology is an underutilized skill and people don’t always recognize what they can learn from this field.”

The vet students often knew what their peers would say, but the counseling students kept them guessing – they had no idea what would be coming next, Pfendner said.

“One of the best things about the students helping us, aside from their great acting ability, was the fact that they helped us create a more real atmosphere of a doctor-client relationship,” she said. “Role-playing with our own veterinary classmates is difficult because we’ve known each other now for three or more years and many of us are very good friends.”

Pfendner’s favorite experience in the class was her final role-play with Cole.

“I picked a scenario to try to challenge myself as much as possible, and Odessa jumped to the occasion to play a client that I would have trouble dealing with,” she said.

Having that experience and then discussing the role-play afterward was immensely helpful, Pfendner said.

“Once I'm out in practice I won't have the opportunity to ask my clients how empathetic they thought I was or whether they thought I had really listened to them.”
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