Santa Monica will lose its only mental health program for seniors in June.
Seniors have been able to enroll in individual and group therapy for the past 30 years through WISE & Healthy Aging, the main service provider for older adults in Santa Monica. The program, which employs psychology graduate students and fellows to provide therapy under the supervision of WISE psychologists, will end June 30. It also provides psychiatric and case management services.
The decision has left many of the program’s roughly 40 participants feeling abandoned and unstable, despite WISE & Healthy Aging’s efforts to transition them to other mental health providers.
“I was referred to this program by a psychologist because I was deeply depressed and isolating myself,” said Louise Steiner, who has been in group counseling for 10 years. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without it. I’ll probably just go back in my hole.”
WISE & Healthy Aging is letting its contract with the Department of Mental Health expire because Medicare stopped providing reimbursements for therapy and the American Psychological Association changed its accreditation requirements for psychology students, said CEO Grace Cheng Braun.
The program cost $450,000 annually, about 5.5% of the nonprofit’s total expenses, according to its 2017-2018 financial statement. WISE & Healthy Aging was able to bill Medicare for a quarter of the cost, Cheng Braun said. Most clients received treatment through Medi-Cal, California’s public health insurance for low-income individuals and families.
Over the past few years, the program struggled to attract psychology graduate students because it receives its accreditation from the California Psychology Internship Council (CAPIC), not the American Psychological Association (APA), Cheng Braun said.
Fewer students are applying to CAPIC programs because the APA is moving toward requiring students in APA-accredited doctoral programs to participate in APA-accredited internships, which offer competitive stipends and are mostly affiliated with universities and large medical centers.
WISE & Healthy Aging has also been unable to find a new director for the program. Its former director retired last September after 10 years.
“(We have) been unsuccessful in finding qualified clinical leadership to take on a smaller-sized, community-based mental health clinic program,” Cheng Braun said.
The program’s two psychology graduate students are now transitioning clients to other Westside agencies that receive funding from the Department of Mental Health and accept Medi-Cal, such as Didi Hirsch, the Alcott Center, the St. Joseph Center and the Edelman Center, Cheng Braun said.
But none of them are in Santa Monica, and some clients rely on Mobility On-Demand Everyday (MODE), the Big Blue Bus’ rideshare program for seniors and people with disabilities. Los Angeles County operates a similar program they could use to get to other treatment centers, Cheng Braun said.
“It’s difficult for us as we get older to start finding new ways to get to something we need,” said group therapy client Phyllis Grossman.
Hannah Salanoa, a clinical psychology postdoctoral fellow, said the loss of the program has been hard for her clients. Although WISE & Healthy Aging said it ended the mental health program because it is a social services organization, not a healthcare provider, Salanoa said she thinks mental health is extremely important for seniors and at the center of their wellbeing.
“To prosper in whatever it is you’re doing, it starts with your mind,” she said. “Mental health is most important for older adults and seniors because they’re more isolated.”
WISE & Health Aging receives about $1.2 million in city funding and pays the city $122,000 annually to rent the Ken Edwards Center. City Council is poised to approve Tuesday a decrease in rent to $1 per year, however, in exchange for the nonprofit taking over maintenance of the building.
Councilmember Kevin McKeown said city staff is working with WISE & Healthy Aging to transition the mental health program’s clients.
“Santa Monica is fully aware of the importance of local mental health services, especially for seniors who may have limited mobility or financial wherewithal to travel outside city limits,” McKeown said. “We continue to work with WISE and the County Department of Mental Health to provide continuity for our seniors who depend on having access to an affordable local mental health program.”