Healing the Healers Through a Pandemic

Parriski’s time at Mason allowed her to gain the needed experience to be a successful health educator and establish a mental health program at New Jersey Hope and Healing.
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Mason alumna provides mental health support to health care workers and achieves the highest score on the Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) exam in fall 2020.

Irene Parriski (right) standing beside Professor McDonald at the 2019 graduation ceremony
Parriski (right), standing beside Professor McDonald, leads a team of counselors to provide wellbeing strategies and support to health care departments in Central New Jersey.

To combat the growing mental health challenges affecting health care workers, Mason CHHS alumna Irene Parriski leads a team of crisis counselors dedicated to providing wellbeing strategies and self-care resources for local health departments. 

After graduating in May 2019 with a bachelor’s degree in Community Health, Parriski applied her skills and experience to help others. “I currently serve as Team Lead and Crisis Counselor for New Jersey Hope and Healing,” Parriski said. “This program is designed to offer emotional support for those impacted by a disaster and to provide referrals to specific programs or a crisis counselor. Specifically, my team supports health care workers in the Central Jersey region.”  

To further educate others on managing health concerns, Parriski became a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES) in Fall 2020. After taking the exam, she soon found out that she earned the highest CHES score out of the nation. 

“I have been passionate about public health since I started at Mason but entering into my career amidst the pandemic added unforeseen challenges,” Parriski said. “Learning I achieved the high score on the CHES exam was very validating for me, and I felt reassured that my passion and work in the field was worthwhile.” 

When asked how she prepared for the exam, Parriski spoke of the support she gained from Mason faculty and the experience acquired from her program’s coursework. “I especially want to thank Professor McDonald who I had for GCH 350 (Health Education and Promotion) and GCH 411 (Program Planning and Evaluation),” Parriski said. “Not only were these classes the most relevant to the CHES exam, but Professor McDonald has [also] been a great mentor as I studied for the exam and entered into the public health field.” 

“Irene’s stellar performance on the CHES exam is a testament to her hard work," Mason Professor Kayla McDonald said. “I applaud Irene’s ongoing dedication to educating health care workers on the importance of well-being and mental health.” 

Parriski’s time at Mason allowed her to gain the needed experience to be a successful health educator and establish a mental health program at New Jersey Hope and Healing. “The wide-ranging classes I took within the community health program primed me to navigate all of the stages of programming,” Parriski said. “I am grateful to the faculty at Mason for preparing me to be successful in my current role.” 

In addition, Parriski praised Mason for providing a dynamic atmosphere to learn in, which helped her gain the needed skills to provide care to others. “While at Mason, I encountered such diversity in thoughts, ideas, and experiences,” Parriski said. “This has made me more understanding and empathetic of others’ circumstances so that now I can better meet them where they are in life.” 

Parriski’s team supports health care workers by promoting activities and resources that aid in wellbeing, such as hosting mindfulness breaks, running workshops on effective coping skills, and holding support spaces to help health departments process their experiences working through a pandemic. 

Speaking on what it is like to support health care workers experiencing mental health concerns, Parriski said that it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in her life thus far. “It is a great feeling to see my team growing as counselors, helping others, and working with passion,” Parriski said. 

Dedicated to service, Irene recently completed training to be a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer as well as a Disaster Response Crisis Counselor (DRCC) volunteer.