How a volunteer-led group in South King County is working to eliminate barriers to mental health care

Even the night before his wedding last October, Michael Swan was advising a new client about a stressful moment in her life. It was the last session of the evening and Swann was in his Kenmore bedroom, listening to her and reminding her of the positive steps she had taken so far–including coming to this free session.

“When you need a counselor to talk to someone, just tell me,” Swann said. “And I’ll be there. I don’t care what’s going on. That’s how much I love these things.”

Swann is a mental health counselor with Kitsap Mental Health Services, formerly an Army Reserve Combat Paramedic, and licensed practical nurse. Most recently, he was Chief of Health of the NAACP in Seattle King County, where he was part of a collaboration between a 108-year-old organization, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and several other groups to form SKEWL: South King County and the Association for Emotional Wellness.

The Mental Health Project is an initiative in the Seattle Times that focuses on covering mental health and behavioral issues. It is funded by the Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on the economic mobility of children and families. The Seattle Times retains editorial control over the work produced by this team.

SKEWL aims to bring community mental health care to communities of color by providing free group and individual virtual sessions. While the program focuses on residents of King County, it is open to all. (The next hearing will take place in December and you can register at st.news/skewl).

All mental health professionals are volunteers, clients do not need to provide their insurance information, and nearly every month people can meet for free with a counselor or therapist for 55 minutes. The majority of volunteers and participants are black, indigenous or colored.

Contrasting with what Swan said, it’s a 3-month wait for some of his official paying clients and the high cost of a consultation, even for those who are insured. According to Psychology Today, an average session with a therapist can cost anywhere between $100 and $200, and while some offer sliding scales, it also depends on whether the therapist accepts insurance, and how much the insurance is. Many companies require that customers pay a portion and will not pay an out-of-network provider.

The need may be especially high in the Seattle metro area: Recent US Census Bureau data shows that more than half of the area’s adult population suffers from some level of anxiety. Elsewhere, rural communities are also having difficulty accessing services, with places like Garfield County reporting only one psychiatric care provider for more than 2,300 residents. Since SKEWL is not a formal counseling session, volunteer service providers can see clients in any city, even out of state.

SKEWL also provides a space for new counselors to complete their training. Through the program, trained counselors can also complete state requirements that include 3,000 hours of supervised work before they can work independently.

“This has been a great opportunity for them to have the opportunity to serve their local communities and also meet these licensing requirements,” said Sarah Wilhelm, program director at Public Health – Seattle and King County supervising schools and community partnerships.

SKEWL seeks to drive more conversations about mental health by allowing clients to talk about COVID-19 and the way racial injustice has affected their experiences as people of color.

The Emerald City Adventist Church in the Central District hosted the first event of its kind during the summer of 2020, at the height of protests for racial justice. The group offered both a coronavirus test and 60 places for a free therapy session in what it called a “community mental health day”. In October 2020, SKEWL went official and has since taken most of its events online due to the pandemic.

To date, the group estimates that it has managed to serve about 500 people.

Norylene de la Pena coordinates volunteer events through her work with the Community Wellbeing Initiative at Public Health – Seattle & King County. She said the concerns that participants bring include issues related to housing and work problems such as racism in the workplace. However, primarily, “The things we see are depression and anxiety. People feel very lonely, depressed, and unable to communicate.”

SKEWL attempts to connect participants to the resources in their city or county. They also tried event operators. For example, at first they tried Saturday mornings but realized that many people either work or want to relax on the weekends, and if they are parents, they usually have to take care of their children. Midweek evenings were better attended.

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Recently, de la Pena has noticed that more people from the East African community in the Seattle area are coming to events, which she hopes means word of mouth is getting around and trust is forming.

Still, you know there’s more than one way to measure the success of a program.

On the provider side, they say, ‘It’s not about numbers. If we can get to one person that’s the best thing. It could, most likely, be a life saver.

SKEWL organizers hope that in the future the program will be able to secure funding, potentially pay their providers, or establish collaborations with universities so that psychology students can complete their hours while working in the community.

If that hope becomes a reality, Swann’s new wife, Amber, may be studying to become a mental health counselor herself.

Swann said Amber doesn’t mind the late-night work her fiancé did on the eve of their wedding, realizing how important counseling during this time is.

“Behavioral health doesn’t take a break,” Swan said. “I had no idea I had a 9-5.”

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times

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