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February 18, 2002

Wishing Well

By Eric Rangus


“Growing up, I was always a good listener and I always enjoyed helping people,” said Paula Gomes, who sat straight up in her chair. Eye contact is very big with Gomes, who meets peoples’ gaze not only when she speaks to them, but when she is spoken to.

“When I got to college, I took a psychology course and I loved it,” she continued. “I just felt like I found my niche.”

Carving out a niche at Emory is Gomes’ next step, and it’s one she has only just started having stepped in as director full-time of the Emory Employee Assistance Program on Feb. 4, taking the place of longtime director Jean Porter, who recently retired.

“The nice thing about coming into this program is that it is well established, it has an array of services that are already in place and it has a wonderful reputation on campus,” said Gomes, who prior to coming to Emory managed the employee assistance program at Georgia State for two years. Before that, she held a similar position at Johns Hopkins University.

“I recognize that there are some big shoes to fill,” Gomes said. “My goal is to have as seamless a transition as possible. My personal challenge is to leave my mark on the Emory Employee Assistance Program.”

The Emory Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is administered by Human Resources, is perhaps known best by the name of the cozy office in which it is located: the Well House. EAP runs popular wellness programs like smoking cessation, fitness and exercise and Weight Watchers, but also programs as varied as career counseling and crisis intervention, both at home and at work, fall under EAP’s scope.

Not only does EAP handle counseling to individuals, but it can address concerns of entire departments. The scope is incredibly wide, always confidential and services are free.

All of this is accomplished with fewer than 10 full-time employees and clinicians. Staffing will be one of the first things Gomes wants to explore, she said. She also intends to criss-cross the University talking to people from every department to find out what their needs might be.

“In some ways, there’s a clear cross-section of needs, especially with some of the wellness programs,” Gomes said. “But some groups may need stress management programs to come to their area. There may be a need for general information about the breadth of services at EAP.

“We want to take a look at some strategies to get the word out about the array of services we offer,” Gomes continued. “That may mean going out to different employee orientations, faculty orientations or staff meetings. Our website is a wonderful resource of information, but sometimes people don’t know about our services until they need them.”

Gomes hopes to expand those services as well. Training sessions she hopes to explore soon include strategies for effective communication, balancing work and family, and conflict management and resolution. A couple other training sessions to be studied are aimed at supervisors, such as managing conflict in the work place and making referrals to the EAP.

Communication, obviously, is at the center of Gomes job. She and her staff must be skillful enough to convince people to openly—but confidentially—discuss their problems, be them at home, school or work. For some people, talking about their problems over a cup of coffee is one thing, but confiding in someone with a doctorate in psychology, like Gomes, is something else entirely.

“At many places, there’s still a stigma related to mental health issues,” said Gomes, whose large docket of administrative duties will limit her clinical work, but she will meet with people on occasion. “But what I find is that once people seek out our service, there is a comfort level. On a university campus, where there is crossover for students and employees, is when people are dealing with issues of depression, anxiety, addiction or addictive behaviors.”

Neither Gomes nor EAP handle student concerns (students have their own counseling center) but she has experience working in student mental health. In previous positions at George Washington University and Mount Holyoke College, in Massachusetts Gomes counseled students coping with a variety of struggles.

“Many students are dealing with life-development issues,” Gomes said. “They’re dealing with the challenges of pursuing self-discovery, issues of independence and social pressures.”

Employees, not only at Emory but anywhere, have a different set hurdles to leap.

“They are dealing with a lot of family and relationship issues,” Gomes said. “Most people are working a job-and-a-half, maybe two. How do you balance work and life when you are working so hard?”

The key is stress relief. It’s something EAP certainly notices. EAP offers a host of stress management programs ranging from stress reduction workshops to tai chi and yoga classes.

Gomes is mindful of stress, as well. To unwind, she likes to travel. A short while back, she drove to North Carolina, “just to clear my head.”

A native of Connecticut, Gomes has lived and worked exclusively in the northeast and mid-Atlantic. She joined her husband Nathan McCall (a lecturer in Emory’s journalism program) in Atlanta in 2000 (he moved down in 1998), and they aren’t that familiar with the area yet. Much of her upcoming travel, Gomes said, will be focused on day trips and short vacations from the big city, just to learn about the area.

“Change, for some people can be very stressful, but it’s also very exciting,” Gomes said, not showing any signs of stress whatsoever. She is talking about the transition in here own career, but her feelings could be applied to most anyone at some point.

“I’ve spent much of the last couple weeks gathering as much information as possible and meeting with new people so I can come up with a strategic plan of how to address the various needs that have come up,” Gomes said. “I truly believe in education and prevention, and this time I’ve been spending provides an opportunity to do some strategizing about how to take the Emory Employee Assistance Program to the next level.”