Since the pioneering Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Va., was founded in 1999, the need for mental-health professionals has grown tremendously. To answer the call and extend the mission with graduates around the world, the institute has made another groundbreaking move: It has expanded into Divine Mercy University.

As Divine Mercy University, it now houses two schools — the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS) and the newly launched School of Counseling, with an online master’s degree in counseling.

Father Charles Sikorsky, a Legionaries of Christ priest and the longtime president of IPS, who continues as president of Divine Mercy University, spoke with the Register about this latest expansion and the new university’s immediate plans.

 

Why did you expand into Divine Mercy University?

First, there is a tremendous need for mental-health professionals. When you look at the statistics, the frequency of mental illness in our country is astounding. One in five families confronts a mental-health issue, and 18% of adults and 25% of children need help for mental or emotional problems. Yet only 10% in the United States get treatment. Another study shows only 35% in the United States who have severe mental illness get help.

 

Why might this be?

People are embarrassed or afraid, or they don’t know where to go or who to trust. Among people of faith, there can be a lot of hesitation regarding what the secular world offers.

Over the years at IPS, we have found a tremendous interest of Catholics and people of faith who are looking for therapists who see faith as something positive in helping people overcome mental-health challenges and who also believe in and understand the Church’s teachings on the dignity of people as individuals created by God. We are called to a moral and virtuous life, and the integration of faith and psychology helps with that understanding.

Many people are looking for “someone who I can trust and believes the same things about the dignity of the human person I believe in.” We heard it also from many priests and bishops. We [at Divine Mercy University] have an approach that fills a gap in the midst of all these people needing help.

 

In what way did that lead directly to the expansion?

We saw the need for a degree in counseling based on the general need in the culture, along with changes in the fields of psychology and counseling. We decided to create a School of Counseling that would offer a program with online accessibility. We wanted to stress and emphasize our Catholic identity and our mission, and we felt that [the name] Divine Mercy University is a fantastic way to describe both our mission and emphasize our Catholic identity.

 

In this expansion, how will you continue to help prepare students?

Our students are broadly trained in their education, meaning they are capable of working with those suffering from a variety of problems, and that includes some of the most common things, like depression, anxiety and PTSD [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder]. There are 800,000 vets of Iraq and Afghanistan who have sought mental-health help, showing us that there is a great need out there for more mental-health professionals.

We have hopes to intervene in all kinds of things. There’s a huge need for counseling for substance abuse and marital and family counseling. We need to help strengthen families and save marriages. Look at a lot of the comments on Pope Francis’ document Amoris Laetitia. While our outreach to the divorced and remarried is certainly very important, there’s a much larger issue: How do we save couples from going through divorce in the first place? We need family therapists and counselors for addiction, which is a huge problem today, in many ways.

 

To meet these needs, what’s the difference in the degrees you offer now?

We currently have three degree programs — a doctorate in clinical psychology, a master’s in counseling (clinical mental-health counseling) and a master’s in psychology. The master’s in psychology is geared toward those in the helping professions. These are people who, in their work, are actively engaged with people and all their problems on a daily basis but don’t need to be a licensed professional. They’re people in education, priests, nuns, religious and crisis-pregnancy counselors, even 911 operators. It gives them a good understanding of human nature and how to help those they serve. This degree is online, and we’re beginning our third year of the program.

The doctorate in clinical psychology program is completed on site in Arlington, Va., and the M.S. in counseling is primarily online, but there will be three short weekend residencies, and students will need to complete an internship in their own towns seeing clients.

 

What’s the distinction in the programs between psychology and counseling?

Basically, several things. There are distinctions in degrees, educational focus, licensing requirements and practice capabilities. To be a licensed psychologist, you need a doctoral-level degree, whereas, typically, a counselor holds a master’s degree. A lot between the fields is interrelated, but with psychology there is typically more emphasis on research and psychological testing in diagnosing problems.

Counseling is often a holistic approach, helping people overcome communication barriers in a marriage, overcoming substance abuse, for example. There is about a 75% overlap in the fields, and much in actual practice is similar.

 

This expansion and name change came at the right time, in the Year of Mercy. What makes the school unique — the Divine Mercy difference?

We start out using a Christian vision of the person, the family and morality for all of our courses. Within the Church, since Vatican II, there has been a greater call for a deeper Catholic anthropology, thanks to the influence and work of John Paul II.

In the Church, we have done 2,000 years of reflection. The Church understands human nature better than anyone, and that’s tremendously important. Our students have that foundation. Today, we live in a relativistic society where people say that you can define human nature any way you want. So we know that the battle is uphill, but more important than ever.

Divine Mercy University plays a role because we want to put faith and reason into action in a work of mercy when we see the tremendous suffering that’s in the world today, where people feel alone and isolated.

An act of mercy is what these professions are all about. It’s mission-driven, where people want to go out and care about others and serve others. We give them the opportunity to receive the tools to do so.

At Divine Mercy University, we strive for academic excellence. We put the best science has to offer out there, but as an institution, we’re also forming our students’ hearts to be compassionate professionals and people who care deeply about our culture. Divine Mercy demands a good, competent professional who wants to put his or her faith and love into action.

 

How will the online programs help students?

About 85% of higher-education students are nontraditional, not full time on campus. A lot of folks are in the 35-50 age group — people who would not be looking to come on campus or can’t because, in many cases, they hold full-time jobs. But the online format allows that study to happen. The online degree is geared toward working professionals; the workload is built so people can take one course at a time.

The other thing with online [classes] is younger students can live at home and work at least a part-time job. That makes the financial investment more affordable.

 

What are the benefits of Divine Mercy University for students and the Church at large?

It gives the students the opportunity to really study these fields informed by 2,000 years of Church insight on human nature — which is very hard to find in today’s world. We celebrate that and think that’s the foundation for these professions. The students’ religious beliefs are not looked down upon, but actually celebrated.

For the Church, little by little, we want to form more and more a battalion, an army, of well-formed Catholic mental-health professionals who can serve the Church in many ways. Many dioceses are looking for mental-health professionals they can trust, and we feel we’ve been called to help that end.

 

 

Joseph Pronechen is a Register staff writer.

This is a longer version of the print article in the 2016 Catholic Identity College Guide.

 

 

READY TO SHARE MERCY. Happy graduates at Commencement 2016. Courtesy of Divine Mercy University