Face to face with mental illness

Senior psychology major Cydaisha Dupree has been interning at the Mercer County Correctional Center, where she works with inmates suffering from various mental disorders.
Senior psychology major Cydaisha Dupree has been interning at the Mercer County Correctional Center, where she works with inmates suffering from various mental disorders.

By Samantha Brandbergh

While most students spend their Tuesday and Thursday mornings fighting the urge to fall asleep in class, senior psychology major Cydaisha Dupree is working with inmates at the Mercer County Correctional Center in Lambertville.

Dupree began to search for internships at hospitals in the area, despite her dislike of the hospital atmosphere. Later on, she found an opening at the Mercer County Correctional Center’s education unit. Although Dupree would take whatever she could get, she knew that wouldn’t be the right fit, either.

She eventually got in touch with Dr. Dione Johnson, the director of the Mental Health Department, who never had an intern before.

The entire process took three weeks, and Dupree began her internship with Johnson in the summer.

“She interviewed me, and she said, ‘I think this could be a good fit. I’ve never had an intern before, so you can teach me things, I can teach you things,’” Dupree said. “It was really an honor for her to accept me and to take me under her wing.”

Although Dupree was ready to begin her internship, she received guidance throughout the process from clinical psychology professor Dr. Alison Thomas-Cottingham, who first met Dupree when she signed up for her statistics class.

“Typically, what I do is I meet with the student the semester before they start the internship and talk to them about their interests, and see if they need any particular type of guidance, and Cydaisha didn’t need any,” she said. “She secured it all on her own.”

When students start internships, their excitement usually can’t be contained. Dupree, however, “definitely” had fears before she started.

“I was scared about my safety, what might happen, what I may experience, who I may talk to,” Dupree said. “But they’re very big on safety. Even though I’m not an official worker there, they make sure my safety is one of their priorities.”

For Dupree, her first day at the Correctional Center was nothing like what she expected.

“I thought I was going to be seeing people and following [Dr. Johnson] around, but that didn’t come until later,” Dupree explained.

Dr. Johnson instructed Dupree to read specific chapters from an abnormal psychology textbook, and later accompany her to see an inmate, allowing Dupree to apply what she just read to real-life situations.

“You know when you learn something from school and you think, ‘I’m never gonna apply this.’ It was interesting how I would see people who fit certain characteristics, and I would learn from it,” Dupree said.

Dupree has been working with both male and female inmates, helping to prepare what they will discuss in the various group sessions held at the Correctional Center, including meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, discussions on fatherhood and motherhood, and “Think of a Change,” to help the inmates cope with their situation.

Before this internship, Dupree had never been face-to-face with someone with a mental disorder such as schizophrenia, so the experience is a big eye-opener.

“People would come in during sessions and they would have six officers with them,” she explained. “Starting off in that type of environment, I was really nervous, but you learn how to cope with it because it’s your job, and you just have to compose yourself so they are able to understand you, as well. It taught me to not show fear or intimidation. They are looking to you for some type of guidance or help, so you have to learn how to do that.”

Since Dupree has been interning at Mercer County Correctional Center for a full school year, Thomas-Cottingham believes it has helped her “evolve” in ways other students are unable to in semester-long internships.

“She talked about how there were times when she felt, ‘Woah, I’m in this place and they just locked the door behind me,’” Thomas-Cottingham said. “And now, she feels comfortable. She would fit in a lot of places, because she makes herself able to grow and puts herself in situations where she may feel uncomfortable, but in the end, it’ll be a growth experience.”

Now, with her interest in psychology heightened, Dupree has equipped herself with the skills to help her excel in a career.

“I’m planning on getting my masters’ in clinical counseling, with Dr. Johnson’s help,” Dupree said. “Until you’re actually in the situation, I feel like you don’t get the experience. I’m glad I got the experience of actually being in the presence of someone with a mental disorder.”


Printed in the 4/13/16 edition. 

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