January 04, 2016

By Joni Agronin

   Student Ambassadors at the Wade Edwards Learning Laboratory (WELL). 

Becoming a mental health practitioner has been a life long dream of mine, but I had often questioned my ability to accomplish it. Up until six months ago, I worked at the national office of NAMI. What I learned in the year that I was there was that there is dire need for passionate, culturally competent and informed mental health providers—and it convinced me to finally take the leap and attend graduate school this past fall.

I’m finishing up my first semester at North Carolina State University in its Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. I have taken classes on different theories and techniques of counseling, and on complex family issues, and I’ve attended workshops on evidence-based therapies. So far, the class that struck me the most was my community mental health class, in which everything I learned during my time at NAMI has been reinforced.

This class exposed me to the real-world challenges in finding access to care. I had to find a mental health provider covered on my own insurance plan and locate a hospital where I could take a loved one in a mental health crisis, then write about my experience.

I already knew the statistics: Only 60% of adults with a mental health condition received treatment in the last year despite the fact that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by the age of 14.

These statistics were the reason why I wanted to contribute directly on the ground. I worked on articles and campaigns to advocate for mental health parity and comprehensive legislation while at NAMI, but it was an entirely new experience for me to put myself in the shoes of the individuals actually looking for support.

Finding treatment in my area was not easy. I became confused just trying to navigate what was covered under my own insurance plan. Even when I was able to find a counselor for psychotherapy, it was increasingly difficult to find a psychiatrist who could provide medication, a hospital for a mental health crisis, or any kind of inpatient treatment.

According to The Kaiser Family Foundation in North Carolina, only 52% of the mental health needs in the state are being met. This designates the state as a mental “health professional shortage area.” Is this problem due to the lack of mental health providers, or simply the inability of those in need to actually connect with or afford the mental health providers in their area? My guess is that it is a combination of the two.

When I made the decision to become a mental health provider, I thought I would feel better. I thought I would feel like I am contributing to the cause on a more personal level—like I could directly treat the people I was interacting with at NAMI who expressed their desperate need for help. I would be one more professional able to provide care in an area seriously lacking in resources. Only a few months into my program, I’m realizing that even as a provider, my clients will have to jump through hoops just to see me.

Starting in January, I have the opportunity to complete a clinical internship and start seeing clients while under the supervision of licensed professionals. My program provides the opportunity to explore and interview at any mental health agency or practice in the area. After everything I had learned about the cost and inaccessibility of treatment, I knew that I wanted to work at an agency that provided community mental health care to anyone at an incredibly low cost, regardless of whether or not they had mental health insurance.

I’m incredibly fortunate that my advisor and professor, Dr. Marc Grimmett, shares my passion for providing community mental health. He has been working for years to build a community mental health center in Raleigh. He wants to create a place where individuals and families will be able to come and seek treatment at low costs, while also providing an opportunity for his counseling students to practice and learn.

The work Dr. Grimmett has put in for years is finally coming together, as NC State’s Community Counseling, Education and Research Clinic (CCERC) is now up and running. The clinic is located in the Wade Edwards Learning Laboratory (WELL), a youth center in Raleigh. Teens who belong to the WELL can receive treatment for free, and all other community individuals can receive treatment on a sliding-scale cost based on what they are able to pay.

I have chosen to complete my clinical internship at CCERC. During my time there, I will have to earn 100 clinical hours, lead group therapy sessions and assist with center outreach. The clinic is still a work in progress, but I am thrilled to be able to contribute. I know it will be a difficult experience at times, but I am elated for a chance to do the work I have wanted to do for so long.

Joni Agronin is a student at North Carolina State University in its Clinical Mental Health Counseling program. In the coming months, she will be sharing her experiences and speaking with experts about community mental health centers on the NAMI blog at www.nami.org/blog.

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