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Local News

Neighborhood Clinics Program Working to Fill Gap in Mental Health Care

The Neighborhood Counseling Program in Santa Barbara treats patients formerly served by the county ADMHS

At a time when mental health care is becoming more exclusive for people without insurance, one group has stepped up to expand care. The Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics’ Neighborhood Counseling Program, which recently celebrated its first anniversary, serves an average of 400 new patients every month, regardless of their ability to pay for the care.

The bicultural, bilingual health program is based out of the Eastside Neighborhood Clinic, 915 N. Milpas St., a welcoming two-story building that looks more like someone’s residence and lacks the clinical air of a medical facility.

The program is part of the larger Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics group that offers medical and dental care to patients. It gives the counseling center an impressive reach; any of the 17,000 of the clinics’ patients can reach out for services. After the Santa Barbara County Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services confirmed earlier this year that it would be reducing the amount of services offered to the medically indigent, or those without insurance, the Neighborhood Counseling Program has picked up 100 patients since July who formally were seen by the county’s C.A.R.E.S. unit.

“We don’t turn people away because of an inability to pay,” said Vickie Gonzalez, the program’s director of mental health services. The group has patients ranging from the youngest, age 4, to patients in their 70s.

Gonzalez, a licensed marriage and family therapist, personally works with any of the patients who are younger than 18. After working for several years at the Cottage Residential Center, she decided to reach out to a different population, but one that still has mental health needs.

She estimates that 60 percent to 70 percent of the people the counseling program sees are technically homeless. When patients come in, they’re seen by one of the eight counselor trainees, many of whom are graduates of SBCC and Antioch University psychology and substance abuse programs. If patients need medication to deal with specific issues, they’re referred to Alfredo Bimbela, a clinical psychologist and nurse practitioner with the clinic. But Gonzalez said that no one gets medications without the counseling component.

Even after just a year, the group has seen its success stories. Working with patients suffering from extreme anxiety disorder and unable to leave the house who are now able to live normal social lives has been rewarding, counselor Anna Rodriguez said. Another counselor, Chris Beckley, said he has enjoyed helping people see past their situational stress and convincing them that there’s a lot to live for.

Gonzalez said that one adolescent she worked with was teetering on whether to join a gang but is now an accomplished student, saying no to gangs and wants to be alive, she says. Continuing outreach among adolescents is also important, she said.

The clinics have medical services and even dental offices on the west and east sides of Santa Barbara, as well as in Isla Vista, so patients can receive counseling where they receive other services.

“Wherever they want us to see them, we’ll see them,” Gonzalez said.

Initially funded by a $150,000 gift from donor Mary Jane Brinton, the group also receives a grant from ADMHS, but the rest of the costs to treat patients are covered by donations.

Gonzalez is passionate about the program’s possibilities, and said she envisions hiring full-time counselors and turning the center into a training facility for counselors completing graduate programs. She says the only limitation the program faces now is space, and it’s working toward having the room to see multiple patients at once.

The Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics’ biggest fundraiser of the year, Healthcare Heroes, will be from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 3 at the Four Seasons Resort Santa Barbara.

Click here or call 805.617.7855 for more information about the event or counseling services offered at the clinics.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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