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Vancouver graduate speaker seeks to address access-to-care gap in rural hometown

Stories | 11.13.23

After completing the Master’s in Counselling Psychology program at Adler University in 2014, Alison McCleary, Psy.D., returned to her remote hometown of Terrace, British Columbia, to open a private practice.

It didn’t take long for Dr. McCleary to recognize a big access-to-care gap in her town of about 11,000 residents.

“We have quite a number of incredible therapists in the community, but no local psychologist within 700 kilometers,” she said.

This means if someone has questions about their mental wellness or if parents want to know if their child has a learning disorder, many have to drive over six hours to find someone who can do a full assessment or diagnostic.

That’s why, in 2018 — four years after getting her master’s degree — Dr. McCleary decided to return to Adler to earn her Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology degree.

On Nov. 19, it’ll be mission accomplished. Dr. McCleary will once again be among the graduates walking across the stage at Orpheum. She’ll also share her story and hope to inspire fellow graduates as this year’s graduate speaker.

“I genuinely think my cohort and everyone graduating this year will change the world,” Dr. McCleary said. “That change could even start in a rural or remote community.”

Photo of Alison McCleary

 Dr. McCleary enjoys the natural beauty of her hometown in Terrace, British Columbia.

‘No other career’

Ever since Dr. McCleary was a teenager, she has always wanted a career in mental health.

“I always said I wanted to be a psychologist even when I didn’t know what a psychologist did,” she said, laughing. “I honestly didn’t really know what exactly they did until I started at Adler.”

But the reason for her choice was clear — she wanted to help people with their mental health in some way.

“I had really amazing experiences as a teen and young adult with therapists,” she said. “I felt that it was something I also wanted to do. And I felt that there was no other career that called to me in the same way.”

What drew Dr. McCleary to Adler was its mission to train socially just practitioners. Through her internships and practicum, Adler gave Dr. McCleary opportunities to work with underserved children and adults, including traveling to northern indigenous communities to provide mental health services.

“I think Adler attracts people who have a passion for the work, who are driven to help their communities, and who are willing to ask tricky questions with an openness to listen to others for answers,” she said. “Adler attracts lifelong learners.”

Over the past two years, Dr. McCleary found a way to share some of her knowledge — much of it gained from nine years of experience as a practicing therapist — through the podcast Edge of the Couch. The podcast, which she started in February 2021 with fellow Adler alum and Vancouver-based therapist Jordan Pickell, provides a space to help new therapists navigate their careers after graduation.

“Our intention is to build confidence amongst new practitioners,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun, and we’re rolling into season six.”

Imminent return

Dr. McCleary is hopeful that completing the Psy.D. program will give her and Pickell more time to expand the podcast’s scope, including conducting in-person training at conferences.

However, it hasn’t exactly been the most relaxing months since completing her program in August.

Dr. McCleary recently got married, moved to a new home in Victoria, and is currently working on submitting her licensure application.

“Getting my license will be a long process, but I’m excited to get that first hurdle done,” she said. “I want to get my license first, so I’m fully independent. After that, it’ll only be a matter of time before I move back to Terrace. The passion to serve my community and communities alike is very much still there.”

Dr. McCleary said she often thinks about the people who leave rural and remote communities to get their education but never return.

“We have all of these awesome and smart people doing great things,” she said. “It would be cool to have them do that in Terrace and similar communities.”

This yearning is the reason for another long-term goal of hers: creating a training program that brings mental health providers to Terrace to experience rural living.

“Research has shown that when people have access to a rural training experience, they are more likely to choose a rural community to work in,” said Dr. McCleary. “There are so many benefits, from the outdoors to the cost of living.”

But until then, there’s another imminent return on the horizon — Dr. McCleary’s return to the Adler commencement stage to celebrate her accomplishment and her fellow graduates’ achievements.

“I think of commencement as a cornucopia of so many emotions,” she said. “There’s relief, there’s joy, and there’s fear. There’s nervousness because I’m giving a speech. But most importantly, within that cornucopia, I hope every graduate includes space for pausing to acknowledge their success. Oh, and to not forget to have fun.”

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