Three years ago when Erin Johnson, PhD, accepted an internship at Norton Sound Health Corporation in Nome, Alaska, she knew she’d be an hour-and-a-half
plane ride away from any major city. What she didn’t know was
how amazing the experience would be, or that even after the
internship ended she’d continue to call Nome home as a clinical
and community psychologist.
Born and raised in Anchorage, Johnson was well versed
in the mental and behavioral health issues that can arise in
rural areas, including high rates of suicide, family violence and
substance abuse. Still, moving from a city of more than 300,000
to one of fewer than 4,000 was an adjustment, she says.
“The region really is frontier — there are no roads to our
bigger cities, and if the planes aren’t flying, and you have a
medical emergency, it takes a lot of coordination,” Johnson
says. “It was definitely an area that I wasn’t used to but that I
certainly wanted to serve — and after being here for a little
while I know that it’s where I’m supposed to be.”
One of the organizations responsible for sending Johnson
to Nome is the Western Interstate Commission for Higher
Education (WICHE), a regional governmental entity launched
in 1953 by the Western Regional Education Compact to
facilitate resource sharing among higher education systems in
Based in Boulder, Colorado, WICHE is overseen by three
governor-appointed commissioners from each of its 16 member
states and territories. WICHE’s Mental Health Program,
founded in 1955, is dedicated to assisting states in improving
mental health care for the public, as well as to advancing the
preparation of a qualified mental health workforce in the
Western United States, says Tamara DeHay, PhD, associate
director of the WICHE Mental Health Program.
“The shortage of accredited internship slots is a significant
problem nationally, and is most acutely felt in the rural West
where the imbalance is greatest,” DeHay says.
To address this, WICHE has been working with state agencies
and other organizations across the West and nationally to
create more internships. These internship sites enable doctoral
students in psychology to complete their training in rural and
underserved areas, where the opportunity did not previously
exist. The internships are also a career ladder in those areas that
allow psychologist trainees like Johnson to stay and work when
they are fully licensed.
WICHE’s success in developing new psychology internships
has attracted national attention. WICHE has partnered with the
Association of Psychology Postdoctoral and Internship Centers
(APPIC) to support APPIC-member programs in achieving
APA accreditation. WICHE is working to help 35 to 40 programs
submit self-studies for accreditation by December of 2015.
The goal is to set the base standard in the field for training
around accreditation, says Jason Williams, PsyD, who chairs
APPIC’s Board of Directors.
“APPIC is very committed to the accreditation efforts across
the nation, both with WICHE and with APA, and is really trying
to not only help address the internship imbalance that’s out
there but to help more accredited programs come into the mix
as well,” he says.
WICHE has also recently been approved as a liaison to
the Council of Chairs of Training Councils, whose mission
is to provide a forum for communication among doctoral,
internship and postdoctoral training associations in psychology.
Other strategic partnerships include WICHE’s work with
the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health, based at the University
of Texas at Austin. In 2013, the foundation committed more
than $3.2 million in grant funding to support the development
and accreditation of internship programs in Texas. WICHE is
providing consultative support to the majority of those grant-funded programs.
Innovations in rural mental health
WICHE’s involvement in psychology internship development
started in 2007 when Dennis Mohatt, vice president of the
WICHE Mental Health Program, received a call from his
brother Jerry Mohatt, who at the time was director of the
Center for Alaska Native Health Research and professor of
psychology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Jerry pointed out that the newly created joint doctoral
program at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks and the
University of Alaska–Anchorage had to create an internship
in the state, or run the risk that all their students would leave
Alaska for the final stage of their training process, the doctoral
internship, Mohatt remembers.
“That launched WICHE to start from scratch to look at how
we would build a psychology internship in Alaska that would
give people a broad training experience,” he says.
The next year, WICHE worked with the state to build the
Alaska Psychology Internship Consortium (AK-PIC), a group
effort of five agencies — including Norton Sound Health Corp.,
where Johnson works — aimed at training Alaskan psychologists.
The consortium accepted its first round of applicants in
2009, and with help from WICHE staff, received seven years
of APA accreditation in 2012. Because of the geographical
distances involved in training, the program’s eight interns
participate via a secure videoconferencing platform in weekly
supervision and didactic seminars with their cohort members at
the other Alaska consortium sites.
“It boggles the mind of many in the lower 48 that we’ve
made this work, because there’s about 1,400 miles between two
of the internship sites,” Mohatt says. “But when you build a
capacity for cohort connection and develop a comprehensive,
integrated training experience, it works.”
Today, three-quarters of the 37 interns who have gone
through the program stay on and take full-time jobs at one of
the consortium’s sites. “The program has already had a role in
noticeably improving Alaska’s vacancy rate for psychologists,”