Wednesday clinic fills void in mental health care

For more than three years, Thurston County has been home to a unique mental health clinic that provides free service to residents suffering from mild anxiety and depression all too common in these troubled economic times.

The Wednesday night clinic is called the Mental Health Access Program, and it’s one of the best-kept secrets in South Sound.

Part of that is by design. Its co-founders – Olympia clinical psychologists Sherwin Cotler and Steve Macuk – were reluctant to alert the public to the opening of the clinic in May 2007 for fear they would have a waiting list and not enough volunteer licensed professionals to see all the clients in a timely way.

But now with 35 volunteers providing care and the demand for the service growing, the two are convinced its time to go public, instead of relying strictly on referrals from other medical providers, especially hospital emergency rooms.

“We don’t want to have a waiting list,” said Holly Greenwood, director of community development at the CHOICE Regional Health Network, the clinic’s sponsor. “On the other hand, we’re missing people that don’t know about us.”

In a nutshell, the program is expanding in response to the poor economy and unemployment, as well as likely increased cuts in state mental health programs triggered by a growing state budget shortfall.

“Our community, like the rest of the state and country, is entrenched in a struggle for economic security, health care access, and the ability to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Macuk said. “I believe that the Mental Health Access Program is a necessary resource to help people navigate that tunnel.”

Statistics bear out what Macuk and his colleagues experience every Wednesday when they see clients in private, one-hour sessions no different in structure from what they offer their day-job clients.

A recent Gallup poll showed that unemployed and underemployed Americans are more than twice as likely as the employed to be diagnosed with depression. When the unemployment stretches out beyond six months, that person is almost three times as likely to be depressed compared with the employed.

“We’re seeing more people who are unemployed, often for the first time,” Cotler said. “We have served over 200 individuals, many of whom were feeling quite desperate when they walked in our door.”

“These are the new faces of the poor,” Greenwood said.

The clinic isn’t designed for people in an acute crisis and in need of hospitalization or medication, Cotler added.

All potential clients are screened to see if they are eligible for state programs to meet longer-term needs. The Wednesday night clinic can serve as a resource and a bridge to accessing other mental health services, prescriptions and medical care.

But first and foremost, clients – who are eligible for up to 12 visits – find a trained, caring ear one might expect with volunteers with an average of 15 to 20 years of experience in the mental health field.

There’s no other program like the Mental Health Access Program in the community – or, for that matter, in the state, Greenwood said.

Cotler and Macuk were honored this year by the National Alliance on Mental Illness for their leadership and success with the Mental Health Access Program.

From a purely fee-based, economic point of view, the value of the service donated by the licensed health professionals to date tops $270,000. But that just scratches the surface. The volunteers are nipping in the bud festering mental health problems, which, left unattended, could escalate into more complex and costly issues that translate into trips to hospital emergency rooms or, in the worst case, hurting oneself or others, said Kristen West, executive director of CHOICE.

Cotler, a clinical psychologist with a practice in Olympia since 1982, is semi-retired with time to devote to the clinic. He worked at a free mental health clinic in Los Angeles in the 1970s and has conducted crisis-intervention training for Olympia police officers.

Macuk, who works at Marriage and Family Therapy Associates in Olympia, has been a clinical psychologist since 1990 and is deeply frustrated by the dismantling of federal mental health programs, something that began in earnest during the Reagan administration. He sees his participation in the clinic as a way to become more involved in his community.

Greenwood comes from a background in hospital financial administration and has been employed at CHOICE for 12 years. Her words and enthusiasm tell me she has found her calling in the community health field.

Together, they form the core group of a program making a difference in the quality of life in South Sound.

To be eligible for MHAP, clients must be 18 or older, a Thurston County resident lacking mental health insurance benefits, and motivated to participate in short-term therapy. The program is not for people with a history of sexual or violent behaviors.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444


To make an appointment to be evaluated for participation in the Mental Health Access Program, contact CHOICE health resource coordinator Sarah Sanders at 360-493-5561. For more information about the program, contact Kristen West at 360-493-4534.