Daily Pilot: Vanguard University hopes to aid journey to mental health

Dalila Perea is Santa Ana born and raised.

She went to Washington Elementary School, McFadden Intermediate and Saddleback High. But one thing she didn’t hear much about growing up in her Latino community was talk of mental health or counseling.

Instead, there is often the machismo image to uphold, she said.

“They are at such a disadvantage,” Perea said. “Most people are just trying to feed bellies. When you are just trying to feed your family, the last thing on your plate is figuring out what am I feeling, what are my emotions. You are in survival mode … so I’m just going to shame therapy and pretend that I don’t need it because I can’t have that luxury for myself.”

Perea went to Santa Ana College, then Vanguard University for both her undergraduate degree and a master’s of science in clinical psychology in 2016.

The fact that she is back in Santa Ana serving the community as a psychotherapist is exciting to her. She believes everyone can benefit from the new “Journeys at Vanguard” Counseling Center, which opened in her hometown this spring.

The unique center is a partnership between Vanguard’s graduate psychology program and Journeys Counseling Ministry, founded by Rev. Randy Powell, which also has Orange County branches in Costa Mesa and Mission Viejo.

Journeys at Vanguard provides a training center for Vanguard’s graduate clinical psychology program to students who offer therapy while being supervised by licensed Journeys therapists. The net result for the community is low-to-no-cost mental health care.

Potential clients can submit an inquiry on the Journeys website. They will be contacted by a therapist for a quick, 10-minute phone call to determine their needs.

Brenda Gesell, director of Vanguard’s graduate clinical psychology program, said the center opened in March and had a successful open house event on May 21.

“We already have six clinicians placed,” said Gesell, adding that they are all Vanguard alumni. “By 2023, we want to have up to 20 and see up to 350 clients a week.”

Gesell sees the center as full circle, as Powell was the first campus pastor at Vanguard and happened to be her supervisor when she was in the graduate psychology program in 2000.

Anyone is welcome to visit the center for therapy. Clients pay as able — or not at all, if they can’t afford it. In that case, donations will cover them through a scholarship program.

“We’re joining together with somebody that understands the community,” Gesell said. “We’re also saying, ‘Let’s make sure it’s free. If you need it, we’re going to give it to you for free.’ But if they can just pay $3 or $4, or $5 [per session], that can be helpful for them to move up to that. Then it feels as if they’re taking responsibility for their treatment. It shows the value of what they’re doing, that they feel like they’re contributing.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is an ongoing mental health crisis in Orange County. Suicide remains the second-leading cause of death for people ages 34 and younger in California.

In 2019, four times as many people died by suicide than by alcohol-related traffic accidents, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“If kids have gone through trauma or adults have gone through things, they may need a year or two to process through this stuff,” Gesell said. “Insurance is only giving them a little piece. It sometimes becomes a Band-Aid, where you’re not doing that deeper work of finding coping skills, ways to grieve through instead of getting stuck. I think there’s this myth in mental health that growth is linear … We have to understand that growth is circular.”

Though Powell is a pastor and Vanguard is a Christian university, Gesell said the program is open to all backgrounds and faiths. There are also tele-health services offered, and Vanguard plans to launch an online program this fall.

“Then we can see anyone in California,” Gesell said.

Perea is excited about that prospect as well, yet her thoughts often remain close to home. She said wants to erase the stigma of therapy and welcomes the opportunity to do so in Santa Ana, a place she said is filled with “family and beautiful people, beautiful culture and a wonderful community.”

“Therapy is about creating a space where you are able to process some of those tensions, interactions, emotions so that it doesn’t become something bigger through constantly repressing it or sweeping it under the rug,” Perea said. “Pretending it’s not there is not going to make it go away — it’s going to make it worse.”

She said anyone who might be cautious about coming to therapy has feelings that are totally valid. Perhaps partially because of her upbringing, Perea said she was “terrified” of starting therapy herself.

In the end, though, she said therapy has made her a better wife, mother and friend.

“Good things happen to people who choose to be brave,” she said. “I would encourage anyone who is even remotely thinking of therapy to be brave and do it. Everyone deserves a space to feel, and to be, and that’s what therapy at Journeys is providing, a place for people to be seen and be heard.”

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