WAUKESHA, Wis. — At Carroll University theater students and counselors in training work together to improve the mental health workforce.

Keegan Early is working towards his master’s degree in behavioral health psychology. The program, which is relatively new to Carroll University, includes simulated intake sessions with theater students paid to act as patients in a telehealth and in-person setting.

This practice with a paid actor and the review that follows prepares Early and others ahead of seeing real patients.

“They’re very convincing,” Early said.

The most challenging part for Early is remaining calm.

“The best advice that I’ve gotten so far is just you’re having a conversation with the person. Sometimes in my experience and I’ve talked to some of my peers about it is you get stuck in your head, you’re like, what do I say next,” Early explained.

“A lot more anxiety around playing this improv part that is going to help real people one day,” Una Fortier stated. “It feels awesome. I feel like very important, being a part of the foundation of the standardized patient program.”

Fortier is a nursing major and theater minor at Carroll University. Theater professors approached her about working as a standardized patient last year. Fortier was eager to try it since it combined her interests with a paid gig.

The theater faculty works with Fortier and others to develop their characters for an extended period. They are then paired with a BHP student.

“This is a character that I just get to play, makeup on my own, and that’s just so much freewill that I’d have never been used to before,” Fortier explained

“They are presenting just as you were if you were seeing a counselor with a background with a story, emotions, and thoughts that surround your presenting problem. So it does make it a true-to-life experience that the traditional way of role-playing with your peers just doesn’t allow for,” director of the Behavioral Health Psychology Program Jessica Lahner said.

The simulation first ran as a pilot last fall. Lahner explained that combined with a flexible hybrid format that meets students where they are increases access to a workforce with high demand.

According to independent research firm KFF, mental health workers in Wisconsin are meeting 38.5 percent of the demand meaning a majority of positions are unfilled.

“We think that we removed some of those obstacles that often prevent students from coming back to school to pursue those advanced degrees,” Lahner added.

Because students move at their own pace Early feels he can realistically balance school with a nearly full-time job and soon help others.

“I think that’s going to be incredibly rewarding,” Early said.

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