Pepperdine's Clinics Reach Out to Those in Need
Nadia Hassanally approaches the corner of San Julian and 6th Street—the heart of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles. She smiles at the security guard who lingers just behind her, tracing her steps along the street and across the sidewalk. A group of men huddled around a radio turn to watch her as she passes and steps in through the open doors of the Union Rescue Mission. The noise of the street gives way to the quiet hum of an industrial fan. As her eyes adjust to the dim lighting inside, more than 200 men come into focus, each one sitting silently in a plastic chair facing an empty stage. “This is a slow day,” Hassanally comments. “It is usually more crowded.” She gestures around her, explaining that when people walk off the streets of Skid Row and through these doors, they are literally taking the first step towards regaining hope and rebuilding their lives. And as a doctoral student in Pepperdine’s psychology program, Hassanally is helping them do just that.
Pepperdine psychology students are currently working in 150 community outreach and treatment settings all over Los Angeles, providing support to those who often cannot afford to pay for psychological services. In this way, students contribute to the community, while at the same time receiving the training they need to become licensed practitioners.
Real-world clinical experience is a core component of a psychology degree from Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Education and Psychology. The master’s and doctoral programs are based on the scholar-practitioner model, which dictates that students do more than learn the science and theory of psychology; they are trained to practice therapy in real-world clinical settings. Dr. Robert deMayo, associate dean of psychology, draws an analogy to medical school training, pointing out that “medical students are immersed in the fundamentals of science and research, but the ultimate focus is on training them to treat patients.”
The scholar-practitioner model comes to life in the classroom, where professors integrate scientific knowledge and practical application. Dr. Susan Hall, assistant professor of psychology, says that she strives to make theory a “living thing” and teaches psychological concepts hand-in-hand with clinical examples. In her Learning and Behavior class, students watch videos of therapy sessions, workshops, and the occasional Dr. Phil episode to help illustrate a particular theory or technique. She believes it is her responsibility as a teacher to bring theories and academic principles to life and make them relevant to modern times.
Under the supervision of a licensed psychologist, students in the Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) program begin seeing clients in their first semester. Generally, a doctoral student’s first clinical practicum is in one of the University’s internal counseling clinics, which are located at the West Los Angeles, Irvine, and Encino graduate campuses. In students’ second and third years, they transition into external community services, such as mental health centers and inpatient psychiatric hospitals.
Dr. Aaron Aviera is director of the West Los Angeles Psychological and Educational Clinic, which, like the Community Counseling Clinics in Encino and Irvine, has been thriving as a student training facility and community resource. The newly remodeled West Los Angeles training clinic has seven spacious therapy rooms, all of which are designed to meet the specific needs of various clients, such as the child-client rooms that are equipped with smaller furniture, engaging colors, and toys. Across the hallway from the children’s therapy room is a viewing booth that allows for observation of sessions through a one-way mirror. All of the rooms are equipped with digital cameras that rotate 180 degrees and record sessions for training and research purposes. With the client’s permission, professors are now able to record a student’s therapy session, burn the recording onto a DVD, and navigate through the sessions in class, integrating the digital video into their course material.
Kristin Abbate, a first-year Psy.D. student, decided that instead of training in one of the on-campus clinics, she wanted more experience working with acute mental health cases. She applied for one of Pepperdine’s seven practicum placements at the Union Rescue Mission on Skid Row and started her work there in 2004. The Union Rescue Mission, one of many social service agencies in the six-block cluster of poverty-stricken territory, takes in men and women, many of whom are alcoholic, addicted to drugs, homeless, and in some cases recently released from prison.
In 1891, the Union Rescue Mission was a gospel wagon that took to the streets, delivering clothing and food. More than a century later, it is the oldest social service agency in Los Angeles and the largest homeless rescue mission in the United States. Anyone who reaches its doors is offered a meal and a place to stay, but the services of the mission reach as far as a person’s commitment to change. After successfully passing a two-week detoxification period, a person can move into the mission for a one-year, holistic rehabilitation program that offers tutoring and education services, exercise, spiritual guidance, food, and shelter.
Plans to expand the services of the Union Rescue Mission are taking into account the growing number of homeless women and children on Skid Row. In 2004, an abandoned building adjacent to the mission was leveled to make way for a playground that will be available to the children living in the emergency shelter. The mission’s playroom, painted with bright murals and filled with games and toys, provides a place for families to interact and it will be the site for an expanding series of parenting classes. “Many of these mothers are so focused on just helping their families survive on the street that they do not have the time or energy to sit down and read to their kids or spend quality time with them as a parent,” explains Karen Kilwein, director of public relations at the Union Rescue Mission. Classes are offered to teach mothers how they can have fun, engage, and play with their children.
In addition to GSEP’s clinic at the Union Rescue Mission, the UCLA School of Medicine runs a primary health clinic for mission clients, USC runs a dental clinic, and Pepperdine Law students provide legal aid. GSEP has offered psychological services since 2001, when a $100,000 grant was given by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to open the Jerry Butler Pepperdine Mental Health Counseling Center. In 2004, the grant was renewed and the Hilton Foundation and Pepperdine University agreed to jointly fund the clinic for another three-year term.
Though Union Rescue Mission placement spots are filled by students with previous clinical experience, Nadia Hassanally, one of the seven interns, says nothing could have fully prepared her for the cases she has encountered while working there. The abuse, violence, gangs, and addictions that tell the life stories of her clients made her first months at the mission particularly challenging. “Initially, I felt overwhelmed and under-qualified. The background stories of these people are just so intense,” she says.
For students just beginning their training, there can be a steep learning curve, especially because they are treating such complex mental health problems. Hassanally and Abbate say that clients can appear well adjusted and healthy in the first session, but after delving deeper into their histories, personal tragedies and pathologies begin to surface.
Hassanally says that working at the Union Rescue Mission has taught her to embrace the equally important human side of therapy. “You can learn all the techniques you want, but this has taught me the power of compassion and empathy,” she says. “You think you could never understand what these people have gone through—and you can’t—but it is amazing what can happen when you try.”
One of Hassanally’s recent clients was a man who had suffered sexual abuse and had been plagued by drugs, gang violence, and involvement with cults. “In the first session, I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing here? I couldn’t possibly have the skills to deal with this!’ But he opened up and talked about things he had never talked about before with anyone,” she remembers. “He cried for the first time in his life.” After just four therapy sessions, however, the man was removed from the program because he hit another patient. It is a setback that Hassanally says is unfortunately all too common. When she found out her client had broken the no-violence rule, she was both upset by the loss and bothered by the idea that she could have done something different to help him. But a few weeks later, he came to visit her at the clinic and thanked her. “I was so relieved to see him,” says Hassanally. “The experience helped me relax and trust my abilities as a therapist.”
Dr. David Elkins, professor emeritus of psychology, points out that techniques and theory are important, but the success of treatment is determined by the quality of the client-therapist relationship. Elkins, who teaches Humanistic-Existential Psychology for the doctoral program, says that the crux of psychological healing lies in the therapist’s ability to “create an arena in which the client feels safe, accepted, understood, and encouraged to be fully himself or herself.” Effective therapy is a combination of learned techniques and the personal, inherent qualities of the therapist.
Lionel Mandy, a former student of Elkins, says that life experience can be an equally instructive and integral part of clinical training. Mandy, who will graduate from the Psy.D. program this year, says his training as a therapist is a natural extension of the values he developed growing up in a tight-knit African-American culture. “I was raised to serve the larger community,” he says. “My sensitivity to those on the receiving end of personal and cultural oppression is a large part of what inspired me to seek formal training as a psychologist.”
“Remember,” points out deMayo, “it is not a random group of people who go into the field of psychology. Those who gravitate towards therapy are people who have a natural inclination to serve others. Academic instruction and clinical practice will formalize and shape a therapist’s abilities, but no amount of training can make a person caring and empathic.”
Pepperdine’s mission of “strengthening lives for purpose, service, and leadership” guides every aspect of the curriculum, clinical training, and supervision involved in earning a psychology degree from GSEP. While the academic rigor of class work challenges the students on an intellectual level, the program also prepares them to change and impact people’s lives for the better. “This is not just about preparing people for a trade, but preparing people for a profession that is going to serve the community,” says deMayo.
The challenges and setbacks involved in clinical work can make it an intense and sometimes difficult undertaking, but Hassanally says that seeing progress in her clients is the most satisfying reward, and it reminds her of the greater purpose she serves. As she puts it, “The more you give of yourself, the more you get in return."