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Published November 24, 2012, 11:30 PM

NDSU family therapy program hailed as national leader

FARGO – Tom Stone Carlson said most family therapy programs train future therapists to work with “general clients” – which usually means white, heterosexual, upper middle class couples who make up the bulk of the field’s research.

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

FARGO – Tom Stone Carlson said most family therapy programs train future therapists to work with “general clients” – which usually means white, heterosexual, upper middle class couples who make up the bulk of the field’s research.

But that can leave professionals unprepared when they work with people who don’t fit into that group, including racial minorities, gay and lesbian couples, and low-income families, said Carlson, associate professor and coordinator of North Dakota State University’s couple and family therapy program.

“The literature’s pretty clear working with the LGBT community that therapists who haven’t received any training or maybe have some biased beliefs can actually cause increased harm in terms of increased rates of depression, anxiety and maybe increased suicidal ideation just from actually going to treatment,” he said.

Carlson said that concern prompted the NDSU program to shift its focus in 2004. Rather than just require students to take one diversity class, issues of social justice are now at the center of all of their courses as they make their way through the two-and-a-half year program to earn a master’s degree.

Prospective students and top scholars from across the country have taken note, and it is now viewed as a national leader in couple and family therapy. The program recently won a national training award from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy – only the second time the award went to a program rather than an individual.

In his nomination letter, Purdue University professor Douglas Sprenkle said the program has already made “a significant and lasting impact” on the field.

“Their efforts to raise the visibility of the need for training programs to make the issues of diversity and social justice central to training of all couple and family therapists are deserving of recognition and is a model for the entire field of couple and family therapy,” he wrote.

Carlson said the program used to attract regional students. Now, 40 to 50 applicants vie for the eight spots in the program each year.

“One of the things that’s happened is that students who are really interested in diversity kinds of ideas are really attracted to our program,” he said. “We now have students applying to our program from all across the country and Canada who are wanting to come and move to Fargo and come to NDSU because of our focus.”

Besides a full class schedule, students work for a year at the NDSU Family Center seeing clients under professional supervision, spend another year as an intern in a community agency and write a thesis.

Jim Deal, head of the Department of Human Development and Family Science, said the program’s shift mirrors a broader trend in higher education of narrowing the focus to produce students who are better able to do well in their chosen careers.

“I think there was a time when you could define yourself very broadly and you could be successful and you could train students who were employable,” he said. “But I think as the field has expanded that more and more people are looking at people who are specialists rather than generalists, and I think that’s what this recognizes.”

Many family therapy programs across the country have recognized this trend and tried to change, Deal said. But many of them “haven’t done a very good job of it,” he said, while NDSU has thrived.

“What our faculty have done is figure out a way to be unique in what they do and figure out how to be very good at doing it,” he said.

The department could eventually add a Ph.D. program to its family therapy offerings, which could shift again from teaching active therapists to producing the next generation of trainers and researchers who would advance the field, Deal said.

“It’s something we’re definitely going to consider,” he said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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