Vicki Carpenter (’11 MS), an alumna of the Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, decided to pursue graduate school as a non-traditional student following her then-teenage son’s diagnosis with schizoaffective disorder.
“Being involved in his care and seeing what his mental health care was like, I had the opinion that this wasn’t a good system,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said the person-centered, recovery-based nature of the master’s degree program drew her to the division. The switch in career paths, Carpenter said, allowed her to have an inside look into the mental health care system in North Carolina.
“I decided that maybe I could do something by getting on the inside,” Carpenter said. “And that’s what made me decide to go back to school.”
Carpenter, who has worked at the Durham VA Health Care System for nearly 10 years, said faculty challenged her and supported her during her time as a student.
“They were there to catch you if you were down and there to push you if you needed a push,” Carpenter said.
Toward the end of her master’s degree, Carpenter said a professional connection, facilitated by Eileen Burker, PhD, CRC, and the division director, landed her a research internship at the VA. Now, she supervises graduate students at the VA as they complete clinical rotations.
“My strongest approach to teaching or providing supervision is that everybody’s behavior is driven by something, and you have no idea what might be driving that behavior,” she said. “It’s very important to find out about that person’s story.”
Carpenter has built a career on advocacy—for her son, for continued research, and for person-centered clinical care. The first time her son was hospitalized, Carpenter saw a flyer for the Durham chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and reached out to the organization. After completing NAMI’s family education class, she served on the board before becoming president of the Durham chapter. Following her involvement at the local level, she served as president of NAMI North Carolina for two years.
“That [NAMI] class changed my life,” Carpenter said. “I had never heard the word mental illness before my son got sick. I was sitting in a room where other people were sharing experiences exactly like mine.”
At the VA, Carpenter recruits those with mental illness for various research projects, an initiative she said can be empowering for the participants.
“We are learning from them; they can teach us. That’s very powerful for a lot of veterans.”
Carpenter said contributing to research can best guide clinicians on emerging treatments.
“Nothing can improve—the treatments, the medications, any kind of programs around mental illness—cannot improve unless research is done,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter said her family’s story continues to motivate her in the clinic and when mentoring students.
“I had never known anyone who had a mental illness, or, it wasn’t talked about. […] It wasn’t shared, or it wasn’t diagnosed,” Carpenter said. “Having someone believe in you […] is powerful. I’ve seen it work over and over.”
The Division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling is housed in the Department of Allied Health Sciences. In 2019, U.S. News & World Report ranked it as #9 in the country.