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Clinical Mental Health Counseling Degree Offers Skills and Career Path Opportunities for Omaha Co-Responder

Ashley Brugmann’s longstanding desire to help people by listening to them led the Gretna, Nebraska, native to a rewarding and fulfilling career in the  mental health field. Brugmann, 28, enrolled in Bellevue University’s 60-credit M.S. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) degree program to become better at her current job and qualify for career advancement opportunities.

“Growing up, and even in school, I never really felt heard. So, I’ve always wanted to make sure that others have someone there who will actively listen and give their full attention,” said Brugmann, one of six Mental Health Co-Responders attached to the Omaha Police Department’s (OPD) Behavioral Health and Wellness Unit. All but Brugmann are licensed counselors.

A Co-Responder since May 2021, Brugmann has been embedded in the Omaha Police Department’s Northwest Precinct, monitoring police radio dispatch and emergency 911 channels and responding to calls that have a mental health component. Wearing civilian clothing and a large-print ID vest or jacket covering her bullet-proof vest, she arrives equipped with basic first aid training and her professional knowledge and experience.

“I love the crisis field and working with first responders, because it’s something new every single day. You’re able to connect with people in their worst moments,” said Brugmann, who plans to complete her coursework and internship requirements in March 2024. Her resume so far, includes an Associate’s degree in Human Services, Metro Community College; a Bachelor of Social Work degree, the University of Nebraska-Omaha; and an M.S. in Justice Administration and Crime Management (now Criminal Justice) degree (2019), Bellevue University; and three-plus years as a child family and service specialist for Nebraska Child Protective Services investigating and managing cases of alleged child abuse and neglect, gathering collateral information and testifying at court proceedings.

Last year, Brugmann and Co-Responder Carolina Soto received Omaha Police Department “Preservation of Life Ribbon” citations for de-escalating a potential suicide situation after a woman was reported standing outside the guardrail of a bridge crossing the Interstate 680 beltway in northwest Omaha. In a collaborative effort, Omaha Police Department officers recruited several semitrailer drivers from the jammed Interstate traffic to move their rigs under the bridge while other officers shut down the street and on-ramps and Omaha firefighters climbed to the top of a trailer and used a ladder to rescue the distressed woman.

“Once we got the woman down off the bridge and she was safe, I was able to get with her and stay with her until we got her safely to the hospital. She was able to get connected to the appropriate resources.” Brugmann said.

I love the crisis field and working with first responders, because it’s something new every single day. You’re able to connect with people in their worst moments

This January, Brugmann and others responded to comfort distressed shoppers and employees at a west Omaha Target store shortly after a man entered the store and began firing an AR-15 rifle, sending frightened store occupants running for cover. Within minutes, the man was shot dead by an Omaha Police Department officer after repeatedly refusing to put his weapon down. Brugmann commended the actions of first responders and Target managers for their response, and said her work experiences have both complemented and affirmed what she is learning from her CMHC coursework.

The Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling degree program now enrolls well over 600 students, making it the University’s largest graduate program, according to Dr. Barb Daubenspeck, Program Director. Enrollment has more than doubled since 2017, when the program earned accreditation by the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).

Accreditation was an important milestone for the program and enrollment growth, said Daubenspeck, who led and orchestrated the combined efforts of University faculty and staff.  More than 100 graduate students from throughout the U.S. now complete the program each year. Most pursue state licensure, often a required qualification for working as a counselor, and graduates’ job placement rate is 100 percent. There are now 15 full-time and 10 adjunct faculty, most of whom have CACREP-required Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision degrees and are counselor practitioners themselves.

Adversity and personal tragedy over a period of years have redirected Daubenspeck’s perspective on human behavior from the academic to the applied side, and she decided to pursue a counseling license herself. In 2010, she lost her longtime Psychology Department Chair position when Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, closed, and divorce abruptly ended her 18-year marriage. After remarrying, she and her husband lost a newborn son. She has been counseling part-time for five years ago, meeting with 10 to 15 clients a week, in addition to teaching and directing the CMHC program.

“I absolutely love counseling. It is such a gift to be able to sit with people and be a witness to their difficulty and pain as well as their successes,” said Daubenspeck, whose current focus is on building the faculty, working with them to continuously improve the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program, and helping students become better listeners and counselors. “My passion is working with future mental health professionals and helping them to not only learn about counseling and develop counseling skills, but also helping them shift their professional identities and become counselors.”

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