Marcella Nabugasha grew up in war-torn Liberia and suffered bullying when she moved to the U.S. Janet Ceja-Garcia returned to school in her 30s to complete her bachelor’s degree.
Their stories — and the hurdles they conquered — are part of what motivated them to successfully enroll in Kaiser Permanente’s Mental Health Scholars Academy (MHSA), which supports the training of employees as new mental health professionals committed to working for Kaiser Permanente in California.
“Combined, my personal life, academic, and work experience have taught me about social work and fuel my desire to obtain a master’s degree in social work,” said Nabugasha, a staff coordinator at Kaiser Permanente Vacaville who will complete her degree in 2024. “The Mental Health Scholars Academy has been a life-changing experience.”
The MHSA will be accepting applications for its fall 2024 cohort in the master’s degree programs Sept. 6 through Oct. 9.
Bringing life experience
The MHSA launched in 2020 to expand the pipeline of qualified, experienced, and diverse mental health professionals to address increased demand for these services in California. It works with 7 academic programs and Kaiser Permanente mental health training programs statewide to educate and train employees who continue to work in their current jobs while studying to be a therapist.
For a time, Ceja-Garcia felt that such an advanced degree was out of reach for her. Against the backdrop of family turmoil, she experienced loss: 3 grandparents in 3 months. She was in and out of college due to the upheaval in her family.
Today Ceja-Garcia is a 20-year Kaiser Permanente employee in Fontana, California, serving as a population management support coordinator in Kaiser Permanente Southern California’s Regional Hemophilia Pharmacy Program. After earning her bachelor’s degree, she was accepted to the MHSA and will graduate with her master’s in social work in 2024.
“I may not have been a traditional MHSA candidate, but I had a lot of life experiences when I applied,” she said. “My heart always returns to social work. I find it most rewarding because you are able to assist with resources and empathize with individuals who are going through a difficult time.”
Helping employees succeed
Dan Gizzo, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the program’s director, said that manager support is key to the MHSA, since participants rely upon supervisors’ approval to enter the program, as well as once enrolled to juggle work, life, school, and training placements.
“We really could not offer these opportunities to our employees without manager support,” he said. “In surveying our participants, one thing that stood out was how grateful they are, particularly with regard to schedule flexibility when completing their clinical training.”
The MHSA provides 75% tuition assistance, mentorship opportunities, and support in obtaining clinical hours needed to achieve state licensure. To date, 35 Kaiser Permanente employees in California have earned master’s degrees through the MHSA and 280 employees across California are enrolled in master’s and doctorate degree programs.
“Over the years we’ve observed that successful scholars have some things in common,” said Dr. Gizzo. “Employees who are self-motivated, have good interpersonal skills, are dedicated to a new career, and who communicate well with their manager would be well set up for success in our program.”