A church led by Palm Beach Atlantic alumni is working hard to provide holistic mental health counseling to those in the greatest need.
In pursuit of that goal, New Song Church has created a scholarship to help offset the cost of a graduate education for a Palm Beach Atlantic student planning to enter the field. The church awarded the scholarship to Valery Hidalgo during its first “Mental Health & the Church” conference, hosted in October in partnership with Palm Beach Atlantic’s School of Education & Behavioral Studies.
Hidalgo is a graduate student in clinical mental health counseling, was born in Canada and raised in the United States and Venezuela. Her own experience with social anxiety, along with a desire to help others, motivated Hidalgo to study counseling, she said.
“Its values are very much Christ-like,” Hidalgo said, citing empathy and unconditional support and acceptance. “Through prayer and meditation on His word is when we are able to see people’s potential and show them the love of Christ.”
PBA literally was an answer to prayer for Hidalgo, who earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology from a public research university in Miami. She had been praying to find a Christian school where she could complete her graduate studies when she heard a Christian radio station mention PBA.
“What is different about PBA is the atmosphere. People are very welcoming. They support each other,” Hidalgo said. “The professors are very attentive to the students. The fact that we pray in our classes – that’s awesome.”
New Song’s pastor, Ronnie Perry Jr., is a PBA alumnus, as is its mental health ministry leader, Debbie Manigat. Manigat earned her Master of Science in Marriage, Couple and Family Counseling in 2016. Counseling alumnae Bonnie Jo Daniels and Coretta Talbot also were featured in the conference.
The $1,000 scholarship is offered in partnership with a mini-grant from Healthier Neighbors. The church uses the grant from the community-driven health initiative to increase a faith-inclusive lens in the mental health and family therapy workforce and to provide free therapy to underserved Palm Beach County communities.
New Song serves the West Palm Beach, Northwood and Riviera Beach communities. The church’s mental health ministry offers training and professional development for churches and counselors, provides low-cost and free clinical counseling, helps with navigation and referrals to services in the community and offers support groups for substance abuse and for unexpected pregnancy through a partnership with YouMom.
There are tangible benefits to integrating faith with clinical mental health counseling. Manigat points to studies that link spirituality and religious participation to reduced suicides and substance abuse. New Song’s goal is to make sure people have access to both prayer and cognitive-behavioral therapy if they desire it, Manigat said.
Last year, the abrupt closure of the Jerome Golden Center for Behavioral Health exacerbated the need for trained mental health professionals who provide affordable care, Manigat said. The center in West Palm Beach operated an inpatient hospital, an outpatient clinic, a pharmacy and addiction treatment programs for patients who could not afford to pay.
After its closure, New Song stepped up to build capacity and start offering services to the community, Manigat said. Part of that equation includes scholarships so that counseling graduates can focus on their practice rather than worry about paying down debt. New Song leaders hope their example encourages other churches to step up.
“Any way we can help lower the cost of a counseling education is the goal,” Manigat said. “We definitely see mental health as a ministry.”
In addition to faith, diversity plays an integral part in counseling. Scientists have determined that the effects of trauma can be passed down through generations, and that means the children and grandchildren of forcibly displaced indigenous people, enslaved Africans and Holocaust survivors, for example, all carry different types of trauma, Manigat said.
“All of us have different backgrounds, ethnicities, families and ancestries, and we have to be able to balance that in the counseling room,” Manigat said. “Diversity is so important so that we can recognize these historical traumas, what people are experiencing unique to their heritage, and link them to support and services.”
But just as the effects of trauma are passed down, so is the ability to bounce back – and resiliency can increase.
Said Manigat, “If you can’t see God in that, the beauty of His masterpiece … He is still within, giving peace and hope, it’s so powerful.”
Photo 1: Valery Hidalgo, a Palm Beach Atlantic graduate student in mental health counseling, prayed to find a Christian school to continue her studies when she graduated from a public university in Miami. PBA was the answer to her prayer. In addition, New Song Church selected her as the first recipient for its scholarship to promote diversity in counseling.
Photo 2: Alumna Debbie Manigat visits Palm Beach Atlantic's Financial Aid Office with a check in support of New Song's scholarship to improve diversity in mental health counseling.