Giving the Gift of Hope

Ever since she was a child, Heather Miller ’09 has wanted to be a therapist.

After a counselor eased her through a difficult time, she heard the call to help people and has been following it ever since. After graduating from Mount Mercy University with a degree in psychology, she is currently completing her second-year practicum for Mount Mercy’s Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program at the Grace C. Mae Advocate Center in Cedar Rapids. A non-profit mental health agency, the Center serves individuals and families. Miller is discovering how play therapy can help children with their problems and childhood disorders, such as developmental or autism spectrum disorders.

While this may sound innocuous, the situations Miller encounters can be challenging. At Grace C. Mae, she works to build long-term relationships with her patients and learn how to listen to them. “With children,” she says, “it’s much harder to make an immediate assessment. That makes listening the most important tool in my therapeutic toolbox.”

Play therapy is a technique Heather uses with children where toys become their words, and the way toys are used becomes the language. Play therapy requires Miller to listen in a whole new way.

“It’s like learning a different language. The goal is to find the right meaning. To find it, I have to do what is called ‘reflective listening.’ Play therapy requires unconditional regard, and for children it may be their first experience with total acceptance.”

Marriage and Family Therapy Program Director Randy Lyle Ph.D., who also serves as Miller’s faculty supervisor agrees. “All MFT students are required to do practicums, which help prepare them for licensing. More importantly, it helps them put theory into practice. Often, they are surprised by the diversity of people and presentations, by how demanding it is, how hard it is to sit and truly listen to people. On practicums like Heather’s, students learn to listen for the spoken and the unspoken, body language, contradictions.”

The strong clinical component is unique to Mount Mercy’s MFT program, the only one of its kind in Iowa. “This experience—and what separates this degree from others—is that in addition to a professional education, our students go on a journey of self-discovery. It involves a lot more personal growth. This is why we supervise students, to offer space for reflection on their experience with a working professional,” says Lyle.

In addition to her supervision by Lyle, Miller receives live, on-site supervision by an experienced health care professional at the Grace C. Mae Center. Like all MFT students, Heather is paired with a therapist who is always in the room monitoring her work. She functions in a co-therapeutic role throughout the duration of her practicum placement. In this way, Heather benefits from exposure to all types of patients and their unique situations.

The MFT practicum has been a life changing experience for Miller, though in some ways she was prepared for it by her experience as an undergraduate at an institution where the notion of serving others for the common good played a strong role in her education. “You have to be selfless and genuine to be a good therapist,” she says, “You have to set your ego aside and think solely in terms of what is in the best interest of your patient. You will often make mistakes—as we all do—but as long as you can elicit hope, change will occur. Your patient will begin to trust the therapeutic process and the journey to positive change will begin.”