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Susan Parmelee

By Susan Parmelee

The past several years impacted most people’s mental health, causing a surge in demand for services. Young people have been impacted, as early symptoms of the diseases of mental health were missed during virtual schooling, social interaction crucial to emotional development was lost, and access to support was difficult.

The current mental health crisis among young people in our community is exacerbated by the shortage of mental health professionals in our community and our nation. At the Wellness & Prevention Center (WPC), we are working on solutions to grow the mental health workforce.

These efforts include a graduate student intern training program for youth to act as peer support in their schools and lead a youth advisory group to help young people gain an interest in careers in the field.

In 2018, the WPC started a graduate student internship program. Working with local and national universities, we have provided clinical internships for 32 mental health professionals, many of whom now work in our schools and community.

Sophii Sandoval, ACSW, and Molly Banks, LCSW, were two of the first graduates from our internship training. Sandoval now serves as the clinical director at the WPC, and Banks has a private practice in San Clemente.

Two of our past graduate students are now school counselors in CUSD secondary schools, and another works in crisis intervention at the Orange County Department of Education.

Through the internship program, the WPC provides mentorship, opportunities for graduate students to develop clinical skills, and training for a career in the mental health field. Many interns also live in the community they serve, providing an opportunity to connect and give back.    

In collaboration with local public and private high schools, the Wellness & Prevention Center team has developed student peer support training. The curriculum for this training includes empathic listening, maintaining confidentiality, and how to respond to a crisis.

The students who complete this training are then known by their fellow classmates as someone who they can schedule a time to talk to, or talk with informally on campus. Peer support is effective in lowering the stigma surrounding asking for help and in providing students a supportive listener to talk through everyday stressors.

The Wellness & Prevention Center works to develop youth interest and leadership in youth wellness. Through our presence on several high school campuses, our prevention team has developed a Youth Advisory Group that is working to support young people ages 12-25 through an innovative youth drop-in model (allcove.org).

These young people serve as ambassadors to their school and community in raising awareness of the need to support the social emotional health of youth, while assessing available resources and shaping the programming and design of Allcove South Orange County.

Some of the participants in this advisory group have completed undergrad degrees in psychology, are attending college locally and have an interest in the mental health career field, or are in high school and may have experience with the diseases of mental health. This work allows young people to explore future careers in the field.

Another promising model is professional peer support. A peer support specialist (close in age to the person they are helping) is a person with “lived experience” who has been trained to support those who struggle with mental health, psychological trauma, or substance use.

Their personal experience of these challenges provides peer support specialists with expertise that professional training cannot replicate.

The California Department of Health Care Services is providing financial support to train peers, and the Wellness & Prevention Center is exploring ways to implement training and employment of 18- to 25-year-olds to provide peer support in our community.

The work of the Wellness & Prevention Center is supported by grants and the generous donations of community members. Please help us expand the workforce by donating through our website, wpc-oc.org.

Susan Parmelee is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and executive director of the Wellness & Prevention Center: wpc-oc.org. She can be reached at susan@wpc-oc.org.

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