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Free Therapy Program Connects Those in Need With Student Trainees

As experts warn about a shadow pandemic of emotional distress and trauma-related disturbances, Antioch University Los Angeles’ Graduate Psychology Department is launching a free therapy program to help address this growing need. Arising from a student initiative, Antioch Community Therapy Services (ACTS) intends to assist up to 80 clients with 16 student trainee therapists who will be gaining the supervised professional experience that is a required part of their clinical degree. ACTS clients will be Californians, 14 and older, who have been impacted by the pandemic. These services, for which there will be no charge, are intended to be up and running as soon as May 26th. Anyone interested is encouraged to reach out through the ACTS website.

Susan Schuster-Bacon, LMFT, the new ACTS Clinical Director explains that they “hope that we will be able to help our clients with the many issues that people are struggling with during these difficult times.” Services will be offered over a secure telehealth software platform, allowing trainee therapists to maintain confidentiality while having a high-quality connection. Sessions will for the most part be weekly, though student organizer Lane Janger says they “will be able to consider two or multiple sessions for those who need it.”

A special emphasis of ACTS is to reach those who are suffering the most at this time. “We hope to serve first responders, such as those in the medical field,” says Schuster-Bacon. The organizers also hope to reach those who have traditionally had difficulty or reluctance in accessing services. Says Janger, removing the obstacles of “having to pay for services and deal with public transportation” will hopefully make it easier to reach “marginalized communities, people with disabilities, teens, transition-age youth, and young adults.”

This is especially urgent, as “the request for mental health services has dramatically increased during this difficult time,” says Schuster-Bacon. Most agencies today have long waiting lists, and the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health is, she says, “desperate for agencies to refer to because they have such a large number of requests for services and not enough referral sources who have remained open during the crisis.”

ACTS will also benefit the student trainees, whose graduation relies on their having supervised professional experience. Unfortunately, explains Schuster-Bacon, “Because of Covid-19, many agencies are closed or they provide services remotely. Given this situation, the agencies have put their training programs ‘on hold,’ so our students are not able to get the practical training that they need in order to graduate.” This not only harms students who have been working steadily towards their degrees and certifications but by preventing new therapists from entering the field it is already having the effect of reducing the overall availability of mental health services.

ACTS aims to fill the gap here, too. “From the first, ACTS was seen as a way of both helping our clinical students whose progress toward graduation had been interrupted,” explains Dr. Grant Elliott, the Director of Affiliated Graduate Psychology Programs at Antioch. This goal worked in elegant tandem with “addressing the ever-growing need for mental health services resulting from the pandemic.”

The impetus for ACTS came in response to the shuttering of crisis and counseling sites across the United States, a necessary precaution to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus that has had the unfortunate side effect of cutting off access to mental health services for millions. Explains Janger, the student who first proposed the idea that has become ACTS, there was a disconnect in seeing how “lots of people in our greater community were suffering” while at the same time “students who were now qualified and wanting to help their community were losing their chance” to provide therapy under clinical supervision.

The distance between proposal and implementation has been eight intense weeks. This has proved to be an especially hard time to start a new program like this, because it overlapped with the period when teachers and students transitioned all classes to remote learning. Faculty advisors and student volunteers sprang into action, working hand in glove with university administrators to form a working group, come up with a plan, and eventually start the departmental training program that is ACTS. Schuster-Bacon, who stepped up early to be the ACTS Clinical Director, says that “There are so many aspects of developing a new program that we had to deal with, and so little time to complete it.” Yet so far they are on schedule for their May 26th launch date. Says Elliott, “I don’t think a training site has ever been created this fast.”

Janger, who initially proposed the program, is deeply grateful for all of the people whose work has helped ACTS come into existence. He applauds the support from all levels of Antioch University: “On this project everyone from our Provost Dr. Mark Hower, to Department Chair Dr. Joy Turek, to the Clinical Director, teachers and students said yes, and almost all have contributed or offered to help.” Part of what’s so exciting about the program, he says, is how it embodies Antioch’s emphasis on social justice, diversity, and inclusion. “We spend a lot of time at Antioch learning about marginalized communities/groups/people that have little or no access to services. Sometimes I’ve left class feeling so sad or stressed hearing about all the pain and suffering and feeling like there is nothing we can do. This project gave us a chance to do something. Our school is modeling what our society should be.” All of the staff of ACTS are volunteering, including the supervisors and the professionals who will be giving training workshops.

If successful, the program will connect 80 people with much-needed mental health services. It could also serve as a model for continuing outreach through teletherapy to populations that cannot access traditional therapy and to underserved communities. But first, the organizers are hoping that their available openings fill up. If you or someone you know might benefit from these services, please visit the ACTS website and sign up today.