Health

At the LA Mission, psychology students give gift of therapy

Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Frank Miller takes a computer class at the L.A. Mission.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Alicia Warner has a picture of her oldest daughter, Kiara, above her bed.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Frank Miller says his therapy sessions have helped him deal with his depression and "the shock of losing all of my material possessions."
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Frank Miller's computer class will help him get certification to work with Microsoft Office.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Alicia Warner sits in her bedroom at the Los Angeles Mission.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC
Alicia Warner says getting therapy has helped her focus on turning her life around and trying to regain custody of her children.
Mark Shamoon, a therapist-in-training at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology's L.A. campus, is in his second year of counseling residents at Skid Row's Los Angeles Mission.
Rebecca Plevin/ KPCC


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Just a few years ago, Frank Miller was practicing law. But, as he tells it, his client pool dried up and his expenses piled up. Eventually, he ran out of money.

He ended up at the Los Angeles Mission on Skid Row, one of the country's largest homeless service providers. It offers close to 450 beds and serves healthy meals every day.

Miller says he had a tough time adapting to his new reality.

"I really was having troubles keeping my head above water, psychologically speaking," Miller says. "I was really fighting a depression and a lot of anxiety, because I had no idea where life goes next."

He started seeing a mental health professional at the Mission – or rather, a professional in training.

The Mission used to refer its residents to outside mental health providers. But for the past three years, it's had a partnership with the Chicago School of Professional Psychology in L.A. Fourteen Chicago School grad students are currently doing their yearlong practicums at the Mission.

Students as 'shrinks'

Chicago School student Jake Knapik says he's gotten so much out of the experience that he's staying on for a second year. He's learned that initially, some of the Mission residents are wary of starting therapy.

"Most of the people at the mission call us 'shrinks,' or any other term they can come up with," Knapik says. "They're like, 'I'm not going to sign your paperwork. I don't want to do this. This is not for me.'"

He says many do come around to the idea. Once they're in therapy, another challenge is encouraging people that change is possible.

"You're kind of up against a lot of negative self-beliefs," says Mark Shamoon, another of the grad students. "They believe they are a homeless drug addict ex-con, whatever it is they've told themselves."

The early stages of therapy, he says, are often focused on, "breaking that down a bit."

A lot of therapy is also intended to build people back up. That requires setting realistic life goals, says Terry Masi, the Chicago School's senior director of training.

"So if someone says they want to be a police officer, and they've been arrested 14 times, that's probably unlikely," Masi says. "But maybe they can be a security guard, so there's always a compromise we can look at."

She says the collaboration is part of a trend that has seen spiritual leaders working hand-in-hand with mental health professionals.

"Us being educated by the chaplains about the Bible verses that they inspire the clients with, and us educating the chaplains about how we work as psychologists, has been the key to this collaboration working," she says.

The Mission is just beginning to gather data on the program's long-term effectiveness. But leaders there say the anecdotal evidence is promising, noting that since they started the collaboration with the Chicago School, more residents are sticking with the Mission's job training and other classes.

'I learned how to let it go'

Alicia Warner says the counseling has helped her a lot. She says when she arrived at the Mission, she was angry and broken hearted. She had lost custody of her four kids, and turned to alcohol and marijuana.

"I was just on the street running rampant, going to jail, got a DUI," Warner says. "I was just doing things that I shouldn't have been doing, instead of focusing on getting custody of my children back."

She had never seen a psychologist before. She now realizes that she's needed help for ten years.

"It's been pretty hard holding on to all that," she says. "I learned how to let it go. It doesn't have to affect me in the future."

Frank Miller has also benefited from his therapy sessions with Chicago School student Mark Shamoon.

"He's helped me with the depression, and the shock of losing all of my material possessions," Miller says. "And he's just been there kind of to do some hand holding, and he's suggested books."

Shamoon has also helped Miller plan for his future. Miller says he's interested in leaving law behind, and getting another degree in counseling or psychology.

Stories like this inspire students like Shamoon, who says, "People just need a little bit of a chance – food, shelter, some structure – and remarkable things happen."

Shamoon says his experience at the Mission has been life changing - so much so that he's decided he wants to work with underserved communities after graduation.