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Govs Lead: APSU alumni rally to provide free mental health services after tornado

By: Ethan Steinquest January 3, 2024

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Photo: Roxanne Hallisey is a pre-licensed professional counselor with Hampton House Counseling.

When natural disaster strikes, the road to recovery extends far beyond any physical damage left in the aftermath – and many Clarksville residents are still feeling the emotional toll after an EF3 tornado touched down in the city on Dec. 9.

That inspired a coalition of therapists led by Austin Peay State University alumni to organize free mental health support services for the community starting Jan. 6, 2024, at Kenwood Baptist Church, with details available at www.careforclarksville.com.

“What we’re looking at is a complete 180 of some people’s lives,” said Roxanne Hallisey, a pre-licensed professional counselor with Hampton House Counseling. “To go from having a home to losing it, or from being OK during a thunderstorm to not being OK … for many of the feelings people are experiencing, like grief, loss and fear, they need support. And my mind immediately went to figuring out how to use the skills I was taught in my program at Austin Peay to support this community.”

Hallisey graduated from Austin Peay with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Science in clinical mental health counseling. She said psychological first aid training was an important part of her master’s program, so she decided to reach out to members of her cohort about putting those skills into practice.

“Right now, we’re forming support groups where people who were displaced or impacted can come sit down with others who have also been through this and talk through their feelings,” she said. “We’re also actively working to facilitate free and confidential drop-in hours where a trained mental health professional can check in with you and help you access resources and coping skills.”

In addition, the group has been in contact with mental health professionals across Middle Tennessee who have donated more than 230 pro bono therapy sessions. For those in need, a list of therapists offering pro bono sessions, support groups, and drop-in hours is available at www.careforclarksville.com. The webpage is also updated frequently with information on community resources like food, shelter and donation centers.

“I helped create the resource list, which was mainly going around in the first three days when the shock was still there,” said Haleigh Watson, a second-year graduate student in Austin Peay’s clinical mental health counseling program. “After that, we knew that mental health is just as important as physical health, so I called around to as many therapists as I knew that were actively practicing."

Jana Simonis, a licensed professional counselor with Matters of the Heart Counseling in Goodlettsville, is among those involved in the effort. She worked closely with Hallisey from the beginning to implement free mental health support services within the community alongside her husband, Derek - the pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church.

“I’ve been through a lot of trauma in my own life, and in those moments, there wasn’t anyone who just said ‘I’m here. What can I do for you?’” said Simonis, who graduated from Austin Peay with a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. “That really inspired me to get into counseling and to be that person who can step in when disaster strikes and trauma hits someone.”

At first, the team struggled to find a location to accommodate the need for support services. However, as Kenwood Baptist Church developed into a central donation site for tornado victims, they realized its potential as a venue to reach the community.

“The church has been a big help, allowing us to have a space for childcare,” said Jasmine Villers, a second-year graduate student in Austin Peay’s clinical mental health program and an intern with Hampton House Counseling. “That’s important if single parents walk in and need somewhere for their kids to go, especially if their children aren’t in need of support."

Villers also spent the last few weeks working on resource lists and calling therapists to pitch in, and she plans to offer support herself once the groups begin.

“I’m a teacher at Northeast Middle School, and my students are in the area that got hit the most heavily,” she said. “As I was going out into the community and looking for resources, I noticed there was no mental health support … but eventually, the shelters are going to close, and people are out there looking for new homes and trying to figure out their next steps. They need someone there to support them and show them they’re not alone.”

Simonis said Austin Peay prepared many local counselors to provide that support for tornado victims and survivors, no matter how they were impacted or what their needs are.

“The professors really taught us how to reflect as counselors and dig deep,” she said. “They also trained us in every aspect of the field so we can go out and sit with people who are in hard places, walk beside them in their journey and meet them where they’re at.”

Hallisey said it is important for community members to know they can always ask for support, even if they feel like others are in greater need, and that there are plenty of volunteers ready to lend a helping hand.

“I think it really speaks to the spirit of what it means to be a student or alumni from Austin Peay,” she said. “That Gov spirit of giving and leading the charge to help our community is really evident in this for me. It makes me proud to have come from Austin Peay because I’ve had so many teachers, colleagues, cohort members and friends show up for this.”

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