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Master of social work students at WWU Billings campus care for more than 1,800 patients at free mental health clinic

The Billings clinic has three separate therapy rooms, as well as a play-therapy room.

The Billings clinic has three separate therapy rooms, as well as a play-therapy room.

Perry (third from left) and her staff gather at Horses Spirits Healing, Inc., a nonprofit organization the Billings clinic occasionally collaborates with that specializes in equine-facilitated psychotherapy.

Perry (third from left) and her staff gather at Horses Spirits Healing, Inc., a nonprofit organization the Billings clinic occasionally collaborates with that specializes in equine-facilitated psychotherapy.

Counselors at the Billings clinic take a supportive approach and aim to help individuals rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

Counselors at the Billings clinic take a supportive approach and aim to help individuals rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

“It started as a dream,” said Pamela Bing Perry, assistant professor of social work and program coordinator for the Walla Walla University School of Social Work and Sociology, Billings Campus. “I wanted a student clinic in which master of social work (MSW) students could serve the population and earn experience.” In 2010, Perry submitted a proposal for just such a clinic to the dean of the school of social work. Due to budget constraints, the proposal was turned down. Perry prayed, "God, this is your deal," and then put the project on the back burner.

Then in 2014 Perry was invited to a meeting with Riverstone Health, a large public health agency in south-central Montana, to discuss the WWU social work program. Unbeknownst to her, Riverstone Health was preparing a De-Stress grant application for local improvements, and after hearing her dream for the clinic, they said, “Well, let’s put it in the grant.” Perry was caught off guard by their offer and says that it was “totally a God thing, not solicited at all.”

The $93,000 De-Stress grant was awarded later that year, and Perry and her colleagues had to scramble to get the clinic ready. They found space for the clinic in the building where the social work classes are held. Room dividers were built, and high quality new and used furniture was procured from a variety of “unexpected sources,” such as local ads and Craigslist. This resourcefulness was nothing new to Perry, who says, “I’ve lived overseas in the Sudan and Haiti—you make things work!”

It all came together, and the clinic opened in March 2015. It was an “amazing team effort,” Perry says, with “a lot of collaboration.” The clinic is free and entirely student run. Experienced student counselors can start work right away, but unvetted students must complete foundational coursework before they begin.

Meeting important community needs
A common issue addressed at the Billings clinic is past trauma, and the need is real. According to Perry, 92 percent of the clients served have a score on the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, which measures the cause-and-effect connection between childhood trauma and later physical and mental health issues. Of the 92 percent, nearly half have an ACEs score of four or above, which is considered quite serious. Many of the clients that attend the clinic are homeless, which is not unusual for a free clinic. Clients on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale—such as the homeless—do not have the ready access to medical, dental, and mental-health services that wealthier clients enjoy. “It’s win-win,” says Perry, “educating people to help with trauma and providing a place for the population to come.”

The MSW student counselors benefit from their firsthand experience at the clinic and are able to debrief with their licensed supervisors during weekly supervision meetings. They receive two hours of group supervision and one hour of individual supervision weekly from Peggy Barta, an experienced trauma counselor who developed the trauma curriculum at Billings. The therapy sessions are recorded and played back during supervision in a process that Perry calls, “cutting edge, real supervision based on real sessions.” The clinic has trained 20 MSW clinicians thus far.

The student benefits aren’t just experiential, either. “Prior to last quarter we couldn’t pay them,” says Perry, “but the Montana Mental Health Trust Fund now provides stipends for six students.” The practical benefits go beyond counseling and into the realm of policy development, as the MSW students are responsible for developing the policy that will govern their stipend program.

The free clinic has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 2015. In addition to funding from the initial De-Stress grant, the clinic now receives funding from the Montana Mental Health Trust Fund, St. Vincent Mission Fund, Allegra, and private donors. In this year alone, the clinic has received $72,003 in grants and $6,000 in private donations—funds that have allowed great things. Along with beginning to pay its interns, the clinic now has a play-therapy room and pulse oximeters—machines that monitor a client’s pulse to help track their emotional state.

The word has gotten out in the community, too. As of February 2018, the clinic had served 1,840 clients, and the number is sure to grow exponentially. The clinic has a constant waiting list, and local mental health agencies are referring more and more clients to their doors. This kind of collaboration is exactly what Perry and her team have sought. She explains, “My vision is that we are rooted in the community, that we collaborate with the community, and provide services as a community. This will link the clients in with their community and with their support resources.” Perry is thrilled to see the clinic grow. “This has been the biggest God thing ever,” she says, echoing a sentiment that is likely shared by many of the clinic’s clients.

The WWU School of Social Work and Sociology offers a bachelor of social work degree on the campus in College Place, Washington, and a master of social work degree in College Place and in Billings and Missoula, Montana.

Posted March 22, 2018

Last update on February 26, 2019