CPM’s Theresa Novak Tends to Students’ Heads, Hearts and Feet
HOW NEW CPM COUNSELING SERVICES ARE BRINGING THE MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA INTO THE LIGHT.
Since its inception over 100 years ago, the College of Podiatric Medicine (CPM) has held the student experience as its utmost priority. This “Students First” initiative has brought many changes throughout the years, seen in curriculum, facilities and services offered, and ensuring that each student graduates as a healthy and well-trained doctor of podiatric medicine.
In keeping with this focus, and given the reality of a vigorous curriculum, CPM recently began assessing the quality of student life and in 2017 hired Theresa Novak, M.Ed., PCC-S, CWC, as a counseling specialist in its new Counseling & Wellness Services Office.
A proud graduate of the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program at Kent State University, Novak’s career has led her to serve an array of communities, from adolescents and families to college communities, and now, medical students. Her mission: Bring balance to CPM through individual counseling, outreach education, and consultative services to Kent State employees, physicians and surgeons.
According to a 2017 American College Health Association survey of more than 63,000 students, nearly 40 percent reported depression and 61 percent said they felt “overwhelming anxiety” during that same period. Why? Novak believes the answer is multi-faceted.
“There are a lot of societal messages that our young people internalize about being the best, achievement, and what it means to be successful,” said Novak. “It can be about meeting the expectations of others even more than for one’s self, which potentially increases anxiety.”
But the fog that shrouds the conversation on issues like these is lifting. In recent years, Novak has watched the mental health stigma decline, which she attributes in part to public figures like celebrities and musicians coming forward and normalizing the subject. And she sees the evidence in her own office. Students are self-reporting that they attended counseling in the past and want to continue therapy while pursuing their degree. Additionally, psychotropic medications have afforded many of those suffering from mental health issues the opportunity to manage their diagnosis.
“It’s encouraging to see people meet their dreams head on, not feeling they have barriers in their process,” Novak said.
In just three years at CPM, Novak has implemented a series of wellness initiatives to improve the day-to-day life of the community. First, she created a meditation room. Complete with a massage chair, waterfall, aromatherapy, guided relaxation audio recordings, and light therapy to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder brought on by Cleveland winters, the room serves as a quiet, welcoming escape to learn and practice a variety of mind and body stress reduction skills.
Dedicated to serving the entire CPM community, Novak is currently leading a four-week training in mindfulness meditation to any for student, faculty or staff member interested in expanding their skills on campus and beyond. In addition, she also founded the CPM Wellness Committee, which bridges the gap between students and administration by creating opportunities to improve overall success.
When asked what students need most in their educational journey, Novak listed two important things:
- Knowing that they have a support system of people they can turn to who have their back.
- Recognizing that no matter how motivated they are in their career and in life, they should strive for balance and do things that bring them joy and make them the best they can be personally and professionally.
The life skills that Novak teaches CPM students reach far beyond the classroom and clinic. At the most basic level, she believes that counseling may help individuals understand themselves in terms of behavior patterns and emotional responses to people and situations. Students can use counseling to discover healthy coping strategies to manage adversity and stress, and even explore if medication should be a part of their treatment plan.
“Ultimately, when we understand ourselves and what motivates and inhibits us, we can make changes that can get us to the places we believe will lead us to being satisfied in life,” said Novak.