To be emotionally well is to be on a journey, according to Governors State University (GSU) Assistant Professor Dr. Sonya Lorelle. “Mental health is on a continuum. It’s not a pathology to be fixed,” said Lorelle, a licensed counselor and registered Play Therapist, whose decade-long advocacy has taken her across the globe promoting good mental health.
In Bangalore, India, Lorelle trained others to help children heal. In Buddhist Bhutan, she helped start a professional counseling education program and trained lay people to identify and treat commonly occurring yet potentially devastating issues such as anxiety and depression.And, in 2013, Lorelle brought her passion for child and adult counseling, education and mental health wellness to students in the GSU College of Education. Today, she serves as coordinator of GSU’s Counselor Education and Supervision doctorate program, has co-authored two academic papers in recent years, and helped write a $267,000 grant providing stipends to GSU student intern counselors.
A former music major, Lorelle has released three soulful albums and performed for audiences across the country. With an earthy voice, Lorelle’s songwriting soothes the psyche. “Everyone needs help,” she says.
“We’re all doing our best, but we all struggle. It’s about helping people grow and be on that continuum of wellness that’s very holistic with mind, body, spirit, social connections, and nutrition.”
GSU Newsroom: What inspired you to study mental health?
Lorelle: (Laughs) I started out in music, but they were teaching me to be an opera singer and I didn't want to do that so I took a psychology class and loved it. I was always doing self-analysis for self-growth, and I found it all interesting. In my master’s program, we looked at mental health as developmental instead of a pathology. It changed how I viewed the world and people. Now, as a counselor, I get to be a part of the transformation for other people and that’s inspiring—especially when I see the light bulbs go off.
GSU Newsroom: You’ve visited Bhutan four times on mental health missions. Is the need more pressing there?
Lorelle: Bhutan is just like the rest of the world: mental health issues exist, there is a stigma, and those issues don’t get addressed. You are called crazy or said to have a bad spirit or bad luck. Yet there is a lot of anxiety and a lot of depression, panic attacks, and a lot of self-medication. In most developing countries, there is a huge need for mental health services but no one available to deliver services. The World Health Organization calls it the Mental Health Gap. I am a Master Trainer of the Mental Health Facilitator Program through the National Board of Certified Counselors (NBCC) and helped teach a couple classes for the first cohort to identify and provide support for mental health issues. The country has started a counseling program at Khesar Gyalpo University of Medical Sciences of Bhutan that will train professionals to work as counselors in schools.
NBCC also helped Bhutan to start a professional counseling organization that has created its own ethics code. They’ve made a lot of progress there, but they still need people. The end goal is to get mental health professionals trained in Bhutan so they can serve their own population.
GSU Newsroom: What inspired you to bring your practice to GSU, and how are you promoting mental health here?
Lorelle: I earned my master’s degree in Community Agency Counseling and my bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Missouri State University. After completing my Ph.D. in Counselor Education at Old Dominion University, I was volunteering in Bhutan and met GSU Interim Dean Dr. Shannon B. Dermer, Chair of the COE Division of Psychology and Counseling. Dr. Dermer shared the university’s mission to make education accessible to all. It was the same thing I was doing–making mental health care accessible in Bhutan. At the university, we are collaborating with faculty and students to start an advocacy and research group to work in the community and with students. The students will help us identify the issues we need to address. We’re planting seeds.
GSU Newsroom: You also have a passion for neuroscience. Connect the dots between the brain and emotional counseling?
Lorelle: In Neurocounseling: Promoting human growth and development throughout the lifespan (published in Adultspan Journal), we write about what happens in the brain when it is stressed.
In my Human Development class, I integrated neuroscience into the class all the time because looking at what’s happening in the brain can be very helpful to understanding the fight or flight response, the impact of trauma, and positive practices that can lead to wellness. The brain is a big piece of our understanding. Knowing how it works can help counselors and also clients effectively deal with stressors.
GSU Newsroom: How did a music major transition to mental health advocate and does one influence the other?
Lorelle: My songwriting can be somewhat therapeutic for me personally, but I keep it separate from my work as a counselor or counselor educator. I play shows a couple times a year. My fourth album, hopefully, will be released fall of 2018.