ASU master of counseling alum Katarina Scott in lobby at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center

Counselor makes mind-body connection for ill patients

By

Maureen Roen

A diagnosis of cancer or other serious disease often brings a barrage of information about what to expect physically, along with pressing decisions and questions.

What treatment should I should choose? What are the potential physical side-effects? What will happen to my body as the disease progresses?

“But the impact of physical illness on mental well-being? That might not get as much attention,” said ASU alumna Katarina Scott, wellness program counselor with the James M. Cox Foundation Center for Cancer Prevention and Integrative Oncology at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center in Gilbert, Arizona. “Conversations with medical staff about supportive services and cautions to watch for depression can get lost among the immediate choices and worries that patients are facing.” 

But the mind-body connection is undeniable and many patients benefit from psychological care along their journey, said Scott, who has a passion for serving the mental health needs of people going through physical illness.    

“They are often distressed, anxious and have fears and grief about their loss of health. Their sleep and eating are being impacted, their family relationships, intimacy, their work. Their physical bodies are changing (as is) their image of themselves,” she said. “There’s actually a shortage of counselors working with clients who are dealing with physical health challenges versus mental health disorders. They are an overlooked and underserved group.” 

Scott, who completed the master of counseling degree in 2015 from ASU’s Counseling and Counseling Psychology program in the College of Integrative Sciences and Arts, is now a board-approved Licensed Associate Counselor and National Certified Counselor. She is working in two organizations in order to accumulate the 1400 directly supervised client-hours required to gain full standing as a Licensed Professional Counselor, dividing her time between assisting individual counseling clients and offering group classes for people who have medical diagnoses, like cancer.

As a practitioner at The Way Recovery in Phoenix, Scott supports individuals who are in a partial-hospitalization eating disorders treatment program. As wellness program counselor at the James M. Cox Foundation Center at Banner MD Anderson Cancer Center, she runs health psychology classes that treat the whole person.

“I draw on positive psychology, mindfulness stress reduction and acceptance and commitment therapy to give patients the coping tools they’re looking for, without their having to have a diagnosis for a mental disorder,” Scott said. “We try to reduce the trauma of dealing with illness and help people take the time to recognize and reflect on what they are dealing with: What’s happening in my life now? How am I feeling about it? How do I talk to my kids and family about all this? Some patients may eventually be cured, but their lives and support systems may be quite different coming out of illness.”

They benefit from tools for sleep, for dealing with inner stress or external stressors from family and work.

Noted Scott: “We emphasize tools patients can use in everyday life to decrease anxiety, negative thinking, and depression.

“Banner prides itself on being driven by evidence-based research, so the classes I develop and coordinate draw on existing research studies to every extent possible,” she added.

There are classes and services offered on everything from body awareness, mindfulness and communication to nutrition, massage and acupuncture. Teachers may include a registered dietician, registered nurse, rehabilitation staff, a registered wound nurse or a chaplain.

Some group courses, like yoga and a class on mind-body connections, are free, open to the greater community and offered throughout the year. Scott said that about 500 community cancer survivors and their families take advantage of yoga classes each month, for example. Other courses are limited to Banner MD Anderson patients and their support team, because of the nature of the information shared in sessions. There are cancer-specific support groups as well. 

“Ultimately, Banner MD Anderson and the Cox Center’s goals are cancer prevention,” she said. “We aim to give people the tools that help them have the greatest chance of not getting cancer, or not having another occurrence or a secondary cancer.”   

A degree that travels well

Scott discovered her passion for working in health psychology while doing a clinical internship as part of her ASU master’s program.

“I had the opportunity to do a clinical internship under integrative health counselor Patricia DeBruhl at Banner Desert Hospital, counseling oncology adult and pediatric patients and their families,” Scott explained. “She’s inspirational! She’s an alum of the master of counseling program and once told me she takes the time to supervise interns because she needs more colleagues in this field, and mentoring is one way to help that effort.”

After graduating from the master of counseling program, Scott quickly found that her classroom and clinical experiences — and her degree’s accreditation — were of a caliber that would take her just about anywhere.

“I moved to the state of Washington right after graduation,” she said. “I found I had no issue seeking licensure out of state; in fact, I was given bonus hours because ASU’s master of counseling is CACREP accredited.”

Scott accepted a position in Washington as a consulting therapist in a partial-hospitalization eating disorder clinic.

“When I interviewed for the job and they saw my degree, they said: It’s perfect. It’s health counseling but it addresses so many other areas of counseling. They told me that because I had a year of internship and the practicum course, that really set me apart. It was nice to have the validation that I had a strong degree, even in another state.”

In the semester-long practicum course, master’s degree students provide weekly counseling to about six community members each, in ASU’s Counselor Training Center. They’re supervised by doctoral students and a faculty member.

“With the practicum and internship combined, you graduate with a year and a half of direct counseling training and supervised client experience prior to even working in the field,” Scott said. “It’s one of the many reasons ASU has the accreditation it does.”

In her work in health psychology, Scott has also found that the training she received at ASU in multicultural perspectives is vital: “The multicultural counseling class was particularly important,” she said. “It challenges your beliefs and boundaries and helps you develop empathy. Disease hits every population hard.”

Lisa Spanierman, professor and head of the faculty of Counseling and Counseling Psychology, said the emphasis on cultural competency is a distinguishing feature of ASU’s graduate programs.

“As a faculty we focus on educating counselors and psychologists to become culturally competent to work with a diverse clientele in a variety of mental health settings,” Spanierman said. “We highlight the use of research to inform our knowledge base and our training to promote the health of individuals, families, groups, and organizations in a diverse society.”