They began their studies online in the fall of 2020 as COVID-19 continued its dynamic trail around the world. Now, a close-knit group of 16 students are the first-ever graduating cohort from the Master of Science (MSc) in Psychotherapy program at McMaster University.
For nearly two years, the students found themselves on the frontline of the mental health crisis of the pandemic era while learning the theory of psychotherapy and completing their practicums at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and in private practice clinics that offer psychotherapy for a range of mental health concerns.
“We are so excited to have our first graduating cohort through the program. We will always remember this cohort not only because they were the first, but because they also had to navigate the unique challenges of online learning, which they did with such great success,” said program director Elizabeth Pawluk, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences.
“Many clinical services have moved to virtual care offerings and these students were fully immersed in this type of offerings during their clinical placements and therefore, will have the training to continue engaging in this modality moving forward.”
The full-time masters program spans five terms over 20 months, including seven required and two elective courses, as well as two clinical practicums. Pawluk said the largest cohort yet is joining the program this September, with 28 students expected. They will join a class of 19 students who started in 2021, bringing its total number to 47 this fall.
On May 25, the 16 members of the first class will cross the stage at the FirstOntario Concert Hall with 622 other graduates of Faculty of Health Sciences programs to receive their degrees. Another 570 students graduate from McMaster’s School of Nursing on May 26.
Four graduates from the psychotherapy program reflect on studying through the COVID-19 era.
Having worked for 10 years in senior management at McMaster, Susan Giroux enrolled in the MSc to better understand why increasing numbers of students are experiencing mental health challenges.
“You do have a responsibility in a teaching context to be alive to the various kinds of issues faced by students and what they are confronting,” said Giroux, professor in the Department of English and Cultural Studies, also a former vice-provost and vice-president, academic until 2020.
Giroux said that working through the pandemic, a major historical event, has caused a spike in mental health crises. It has also added to existing worries faced by the younger generation, which already include issues like climate change, housing insecurity and the rising cost of living.
“I needed to understand from the inside why there is such a spike in mental health challenges and to interrogate this question as someone who is a fully-qualified professional,” said Giroux.
“The MSc program itself was absolutely riveting and an incredible two years for me. It was a time of incredible learning and growth, and certainly positioned me to go back into my day job at McMaster as a much better listener, teacher and communicator.”
Despite being forced online by the pandemic, Giroux bonded with her classmates while learning the theory behind mental wellness and what constitutes a mental health challenge. Her class also learned about different treatment models, such as cognitive and behavioural therapy to help patients.
In doing so, Giroux said the program taught her more about herself and her strengths and encouraged introspection even as she focused on helping others.
For her practicum, she worked at St. Joseph Healthcare Hamilton’s Anxiety Treatment and Research Clinic, where she saw many patients with anxiety disorders, as well as general anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder and phobias.
She used her classroom training to devise individualized treatment strategies for her patients, working alongside psychologists, psychotherapists, nurses and social workers to deliver the best possible care.
“It really is an honour when people confide in you and tell you things that they do not share with anybody else,” said Giroux.
“I think the training was marvellous and I will always adore my fellow classmates – we stuck it out through a pandemic and learned some incredible skills together.”
Giroux is currently applying for her license as a registered psychotherapist and plans to open a small practice at McMaster, as well as continuing in her current role as a professor.
Prabhnoor Bhons joined the MSc in Psychotherapy program in part to combat the stigma around mental health in the South Asian Canadian community.
To this end, she also runs a podcast with fellow graduate Naviya Dwivedi titled ‘So Tell Me More: A Dive Into Psychotherapy,’ which explores topics from mental self-care to cognitive behaviour therapy.
“This master’s degree will help me play a role in providing care and raising awareness for both the South Asian and wider community on what resources are out there and how to access them,” said Bhons.
People in her own extended family and community are slowly realizing the importance of mental health, thanks to her masters training and ongoing advocacy through the podcast.
“I do see a shift in attitudes, and it is a privilege to help drive this shift,” said Bhons.
“The master’s in psychotherapy is a phenomenal program in itself, and it really provides a holistic understanding of what a career in mental health can look like.”
Bhons enjoyed the camaraderie she shared with her classmates, which included online coffee dates and in-depth discussions about life in general.
She also praised the instructors for smoothly managing the shift to online work.
“It was a very supportive environment and one that I’d never previously experienced in my education journey,” said Bhons, who completed her undergraduate degrees in life science and psychology at McMaster.
Bhons will continue working at St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton (St. Joe’s) in its branch of the Ontario Structured Psychotherapy Program, where she will facilitate both group and individual therapy sessions once she gains her psychotherapy license. She completed her practicum in St. Joe’s mood disorders clinic.
Bhons’ podcast partner Naviya Dwivedi said the MSc helped her gain more confidence, while helping her understand that working in psychotherapy is a lifelong learning experience.
This includes teamwork and discovering one’s own style of working, which Dwivedi mastered while completing her practicum at the mood disorders clinic alongside Bhons.
She described the learning environment as “productive and collaborative.”
Having studied human behaviour for her McMaster undergraduate degree, Dwivedi said the masters offered her a chance to explore the intersection between psychology, mental health support and health care in general.
“I am really excited to make my professional start in the field of psychotherapy, especially at this time when we’re still dealing with the pandemic and its aftermath,” said Dwivedi.
For Dwivedi, the master’s degree led her straight into a job at St. Joe’s youth wellness centre.
“Having assisted adult patients in the practicum, I realized that if we can intervene earlier, it would yield much better results for people throughout their lives,” said Dwivedi.
“There is still a long way to go, even in a country as inclusive and multicultural as Canada, there is yet stigma around accessing care,” she said.
“Many people think you should only seek help if you are experiencing psychosis, suicidal ideation, or other severe symptoms. Really, anyone and everyone should be able to access it.”
As COVID-19 forced classes online and left millions locked down at home, Savanah Smith took a glass-half-full view of her circumstances throughout the master’s program.
“COVID-19 certainly created some opportunities to be creative and propelled us into the great mental health need resulting from the pandemic,” said Smith.
“I think that both the practicum experience and the expertise of our instructors, who had a wide range of clinical experience, equipped us really well to obtain employment in this field,” said Smith.
She said the course’s online setting was unique, as future cohorts will have in-person classes.
After gaining what she described as “solid theoretical training,” in the program, Smith completed her practicum in helping women facing perinatal-related mental health challenges at St. Joe’s.
Smith said she aims to stay in Hamilton and ideally work in a hospital setting helping local women but is also open to private therapy opportunities.
“The MSc experience is so enriching in terms of orienteering you for future employment opportunities – McMaster University does a wonderful job in this regard,” said Smith.