More than 100 Kaiser Permanente mental health residents and interns from around Northern California work at schools and community agencies as part of their training programs. Pictured, a meditation session at the Trinity Center.
From the patio of the Trinity Center in Walnut Creek, you can hear the constant stream of cars on nearby California Boulevard. But one recent afternoon, members of this day program for homeless and working poor adults were concentrating on the sound and feel of their own breath.
Amalia Jarvis, PsyD, a post-doctoral psychology resident from the nearby Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek Medical Center, led them in an informal meditation session.
“Notice how your breath flows in and out,” she said to the small group seated in a circle of plastic chairs. “When your attention wanders, as it will, just focus back on your breathing.”
The meditation session is one of many ways that a group of 10 Kaiser Permanente mental health trainees has been supporting the Trinity Center, which serves 50 to 60 people a day with hot meals, showers, onsite counseling, referrals, and more. Besides working with groups on relaxation techniques to combat chronic stress, the trainees also counsel individuals. They’ve developed training for Trinity Center staff on substance abuse, mental illness, and safety. And they’ve created a list of free local services in the community.
“This partnership fills an important gap for us,” explained Donna Colombo, the center’s executive director. “The majority of my staff are not psychologists or clinically trained, and we can’t afford to have that kind of support on our payroll.”
Witnessing Trauma and Building Hope
The partnership with the Trinity Center in Walnut Creek is not unique. Kaiser Permanente mental health training programs in psychology, neuropsychology, marriage and family therapy, and social work are collaborating with dozens of nonprofit agencies and schools throughout Northern California.
Every year, more than 100 Kaiser Permanente Northern California mental health residents and interns work in the community as a mandatory part of their training programs designed to broaden their experience.
“The majority of our trainees will eventually be working outside of Kaiser Permanente,” said Kathryn Wetzler, PsyD, Kaiser Permanente Northern California director of Mental Health Training Programs. “We want them to have experience working in the community, and particularly in underserved communities.”
Erin Besser is a clinical psychology doctoral intern at Kaiser Permanente Fresno who works one morning a week at the School of Unlimited Learning, or SOUL. SOUL is a charter school that offers classroom and independent study for at-risk and disadvantaged students.
She counsels students individually and in groups. Many of the students are struggling with unstable homes, family members dealing drugs, and the loss of loved ones from gang violence or substance abuse.
“The students have experienced a lot of trauma,” she said. “I try to help them to overcome all they’re dealing with and focus on what they can do to build their lives into what they want them to be. There’s a lot of hope in that, and I feel the work I’m doing is valuable.”
Making an Impact in the Community
Some of the trainees’ work in the community is spontaneous. After the 2016 Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland as well as last year’s North Bay fires, Kaiser Permanente trainees went out to the disaster scenes to offer counseling and support to victims.
Whether planned or impromptu, many said their community experiences are helping them to see their careers differently.
“This work has helped me understand that a psychologist doesn’t just have to sit in an office,” said Angela Li, PhD, a psychology resident at Kaiser Permanente Walnut Creek. “I can go out into the community and make an impact.”
That’s what Margot Green, PhD, who directs the training program in Walnut Creek, likes to hear.
“Our trainees have skills and knowledge that are needed in the community,” she said. “I want them to see how easy it is for them to make a difference, and I’m hoping that giving back to the community will always be a part of their practice.”