Two graduates of William Paterson University’s masters and doctoral programs in clinical psychology are using their degrees to practice in unconventional settings: one in a correctional facility and another on a US Air Force base.
Ashley Bujalski, MA ’18 PsyD ’20, is the mental health director and lead psychologist at the Mercer County Correctional Facility in Lambertville, New Jersey. As such, she provides most of the clinical services within the jail and she also supervises a team of mental health clinicians.
“Correctional facilities are the new psychiatric hospitals,” explains Bujalski, who also has a master’s degree in forensic psychology (2014) from John Jay College. “Almost fifty percent of individuals incarcerated in a jail setting in the US have a mental illness. Fifty percent!”
Many times, such individuals come to jail and are provided with mental health treatment for the first time in their lives, Bujalski says, noting the often “slim resources” available in their communities. “The rate and severity of mental health issues within corrections is devastating, and just because someone is incarcerated does not mean that they don’t deserve and need the appropriate mental health help.”
“All in all,” she continues, “I’d say it has always been my motivation to help the underserved.”
Keith Happawana, MA ’18, PsyD ’20 serves as an active-duty captain in the US Air Force and is the primary care behavioral health (PCBH) officer-in-charge at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, in Anchorage, Alaska. He is the only psychologist in PCBH, providing diagnoses, assessment, and treatment of behavioral health issues to active duty servicemembers within a primary care setting. He also provides base-wide 24/7 on-call mental health services and supervises a team of allied healthcare providers and technicians in the primary care unit.
“I have always found a deep sense of meaning in serving and bettering the wellbeing of others and society, as a whole, so becoming a military psychologist only felt natural,” Happawana explains. He completed his residency at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Medical Center in Ohio and then received a Permanent Change of Station order to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. “I enjoy serving others and defending our way of life,” he adds.
A day in the life
A “regular” day for Bujalski varies because correctional facilities are unpredictable and anything can happen at any time, says the Fair Lawn, NJ native.
She typically sees about 15 to 20 incarcerated individuals daily, and those individuals typically fall into one of four categories: people who are coming into a jail for the first time ever; those who have a mental health history and are in need of mental health services; people who are requesting services for various reasons (feeling stressed, for example); and those who are on a suicide watch in the jail, requiring Bujalski to assess for suicide risk.
“Crisis counseling is also a big part of my job,” she adds, citing such examples as an inmate receiving bad news in court, like a long sentence to prison, or an inmate losing a loved one in the community.
Bujalski was presented the 2022 Young Professional Award from the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, an award that recognizes new and upcoming leaders in correctional health care, for her “commitment to empowering incarcerated individuals through mental health counseling utilizing evidence-based techniques to alleviate psychological distress, while also promoting healing and change through a compassionate and person-centered approach.”
Happawana, a native of Fresno, California, wears many hats as both a psychologist and an officer.
As a psychologist, Happawana sees anywhere from 8 to 12 patients daily and runs a number of group sessions as well. Some of the common behavioral health issues Happawana treats in active-duty military are relationship/family problems, stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, pre- and post-deployment issues, and substance use issues. As an officer, he leads all business operations, consults with various medical/specialty units on behavioral health issues, and organizes base-wide outreach.
One of the biggest differences in treating active-duty military versus civilians, Happawana says, is “constantly having to assess operational readiness, meaning: Is the service member suitable to deploy? Should the service member remain in the military? Would the service member be fit to return to full duty after a course of medical treatment? Should the service member be allowed to carry weapons? Should the service member's duties be restricted? These questions get very nuanced when behavioral health issues become involved, which is when we are asked to provide evaluations and recommendations.”
“Another big difference is understanding military culture and structure, as many service members are uncomfortable opening up to others who do not share a similar lifestyle or do not understand the nuances of military life and demands,” Happawana explains. Tied to that military lifestyle, he adds, come additional psychological considerations, such as how his rank as an officer may affect a therapeutic relationship and when/how to involve command in the treatment plan.
Happawana was recently selected as the primary psychologist for Pacific Air Force’s (PACAF) immediate response force, which means he’d be among the first to deploy worldwide if any major world events occur that require psychological services from PACAF.
William Paterson University
300 Pompton Road
Wayne, New Jersey 07470