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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

New Clinic Fills Gaps for Early Childhood Mental Health

Dr. Lisa Linder (left) and graduate student Briana Bashaw-Wood.
Dr. Lisa Linder and graduate student Briana Bashaw-Wood at the clinic.

In San Diego County’s most vulnerable communities, individuals seeking mental health services for their young children often deal with long waitlists caused by a lack of early childhood therapists. And because of this shortage, San Diego State University has often struggled to find quality early childhood mental health placements with supervisors trained in early childhood.

Into those voids stepped Dr. Lisa Linder, assistant professor in the Department of Child and Family Development (CFD). Supported by philanthropic funding, Linder was able to open an Early Childhood Mental Health Clinic last fall. Operating out of the Dede Alpert Center for Community Engagement in the City Heights neighborhood, the center has helped meet the community’s need for mental health services for families and children from pre-natal to 8-years-old.

“Organizations I’ve talked to are all struggling to find clinicians with early childhood expertise,” Linder said. “Our overarching goal is to build the workforce capacity to prevent mental health issues from arising in early childhood."

The clinicians at the Early Childhood Mental Health Clinic are CFD practicum students in the final year of their master’s program in clinical counseling. Two full-time practicum students work about 20 hours per week in the center, while about 16 others see about 1-2 clients per week. They also run parenting groups, social skills groups and see children in school settings.
We are able to provide services when problems are identified and before behavioral responses become entrenched.
In City Heights, which has an underserved, heavily-immigrant population, the clinicians provide therapy for issues such as behavioral issues, trauma, and immigration-related strain (they have seen children who have had one or both parents deported, Linder said).

Linder estimates about 80 percent of her clinicians are bilingual, and the center is able to provide services at low or no cost against a backdrop where the Medi-Cal insurance program does not cover mild to moderate disabilities, and many undocumented families are afraid to seek government services in general.

“Medi-Cal services have long wait lists and are designed for more severe issues, meaning young children can get pretty bad before they can get into county funded services,” Linder said. “We are able to provide services when problems are identified and before behavioral responses become entrenched.”

For the SDSU practicum students, the clinic has offered a valuable on-the-ground learning experience. The space includes 15 therapy rooms with one-way mirrors where supervisors can observe the sessions, as well as video technology to allow students to review their own performance later and get constructive feedback from supervisors on what happened and the choices they made during the session.

"I am working trauma cases that I probably would not have received the opportunity to work,” said Briana Bashaw-Wood, one of the full-time practicum students. “I also get to experience the real life aspects, like the fact that clients don't always show up, that clients will stop coming in the middle of services because life gets in the way. That's not the stuff you learn from books — it's real life."

Said Linder: "It's been really great. I think (the students) get a traditional therapy experience, which can be hard to get as a practicum student. But they also get some school-based experience, which provides them a good idea of the different types of positions they might get in their career. You don't just have to open a private practice. There are lots of options/avenues of service in this field."