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United in caring

Students of the Mental Health Scholars Academy share their stories of passion for serving their community as future mental health providers. Pictured, Kimmy Zahirniak, Mental Health Scholars Academy student.

For a long time, Kimmy Zahirniak, a medical social work coordinator at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara, thought about going to school to become a liscened clinical social worker. But many barriers — finances, juggling school, and a full-time job — stood in her way.

“I wanted to do more for my community,” Zahirniak said. “I knew as a social worker working directly with patients, I could make more of an impact.”

Then she heard about Kaiser Permanente’s Mental Health Scholars Academy (MHSA). The Scholars Academy supports the employee education and training of new mental health professionals committed to earning advanced behavioral health degrees and then working for Kaiser Permanente in California as therapists once they are licensed. Scholars have the option to train at various academic programs and universities throughout the state.

Current Kaiser Permanente employees accepted into both the scholar’s academy and a participating academic program receive 75% tuition assistance.

Pursuing their dream of helping communities

Zahirniak is now in her first year at the University of Massachusetts Global and also completing her internship at the Kaiser Permanente Counseling Center — a mental health “clinic within a clinic” at the Vallejo Medical Center, created specifically for training MHSA scholars.

“The whole experience has been amazing and seamlessly coordinated by the academy,” Zahirniak said. “I meet with a MHSA mentor monthly, learn from knowledgeable Counseling Center staff, and under their supervision work with patients.”

Providing culturally responsive care

Another scholar, John Vista, an Office Services supervisor in Behavioral Health at Kaiser Permanente Fontana in Southern California, said a central reason he joined MHSA was to provide culturally responsive care to his community as a Black man.

As part of its mission, MHSA is committed to increasing diversity and providing culturally responsive care through expanded linguistic, ethnic, and minority representation in Kaiser Permanente’s mental health workforce.

“When people can work with a therapist who shares their experiences, a genuine therapeutic relationship can grow because that professional can truly understand them,” said Vista, who is training to become a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at Alliant International University.

Lessening the shortage

Pashmina Wajahat, a student at the Kaiser Permanente School of Allied Health Sciences master’s in counseling program, and a scheduling clerk at the Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara Medical Center, said alleviating the shortage of mental health professionals in California is incredibly important to her.

“Kaiser Permanente is giving me the opportunity to pursue my dream and serve those who are suffering,” said Wajahat, who is bilingual. “I am being trained now in how to work with diverse communities and help those who need it most.”

All of the scholars said MHSA has been integral in achieving their goal of providing meaningful mental health care in a time of heightened need.

MHSA is accepting applications

The MHSA is accepting applications and nominations for its fall 2022 master’s and doctorate degree programs beginning September 8. Master’s degree programs are open to all eligible Kaiser Permanente employees, regardless of whether they are currently working in the mental health field.

The academy partners with 7 academic programs throughout California that are designed for working professionals.

“We have designed the MHSA to remove barriers for our employees to earn an advanced degree and the training they need to graduate and become associates in our mental health workforce within 2 to 3 years,” said Dan Gizzo, PhD, California director, Kaiser Permanente Mental Health Scholars Academy. “Beyond the generous tuition support, we provide mentoring and networking for clinical field placements at Kaiser Permanente.”


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