A Santa Rosa clinic that has offered low-cost counseling for two decades has come to Petaluma, the only clinic of its kind in town, say the founders.
Starting last November, SOS Counseling has set up shop in a one-room office in the Burdell Building on Lakeville Street. Inside, three recent graduates of Sonoma State University's masters program in counseling see dozens of patients each day, sometimes for as little as $5 a session.
“A lot of people are in dire economic straits and just need someone to talk to,” says Michael Morris, an intern who runs the Petaluma office. “Some of it is career counseling, some of it is more basic, like ‘how do I cope, how do I not get thrown out on the street?’”
Just as the full force of the recession was starting to be felt in 2009, California cut approximately $100 million from its mental health budget. The result was nonprofit organizations that previously offered mental health services no longer had the capacity to treat all the patients that were referred to them.
COTS and Petaluma People Services also provide counseling, but PPS, for example, charges at least $45 per session, which, while considerably cheaper than private therapy is still beyond reach for those struggling financially. Meanwhile, SOS says that it won't turn anyone away because of a lack of funds.
“To be perfectly honest, there’s just not enough service for all the people that need help in Sonoma County,” said Dr. Mark Doolittle, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University who started SOS in Santa Rosa in 1991. “Typically the first thing that gets cut are programs to the most needy, programs for the poor, women and children. So what we are doing here is really a backyard effort.”
The clinic is not just a chance to help people without medical insurance or a lot of resources get therapy, but also an opportunity for the interns to accumulate the 3,000 hours they need to become licensed therapists. Along the way they are compensated, in part from client fees and in part from donations including the Jonas Family Foundation and other local organizations.
"We're here because we share in this vision of affordable mental health," said Noah Chalfin, an intern at SOS Counseling. "No one should go without it."
SOS, which stands for Support Our Students, began as a school-based counseling program to address truancy. It brought merchants, school administrators and counselors together to address the underlying causes of truancy and was wildly successful. It's now an established Santa Rosa nonprofit that sees hundreds of patients each month.
The clinic’s opening in Petaluma is partly due to the fact that “the lead intern” 56-year-old Morris lives here. Before going back to school, Morris worked as an optician, a filmmaker and candle maker and played in a local garage band, The Beets. But in the midst of the program, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma “what Michael Douglass has” and underwent surgery, radiation and three rounds of chemotherapy.
Today, Morris is in recovery and enthused about giving back to the town that nurtured him over the past 20 years.
“Now that I have a new lease on life, I thought it would be a good chance to serve,” he says.
SOS Counseling is holding an open house today 5:30-8:30pm at its office at 405 East D Street #114. SOS is located in the Burdell Building directly across from the Petaluma Arts Center. For more information, contact Michael Morris at 799 9500.