A new counseling and wellness center opened in Westwood to meet demand for student outpatient mental health services.
Acacia Counseling and Wellness moved into Westwood Village in late November, the company’s fifth location. Counseling and Psychological Services, UCLA’s on-campus mental health provider, refers students seeking long-term mental health treatment to private providers, like Acacia.
Psychologists Keith Higginbotham and Brett Donnelly co-founded the first center in Isla Vista, California in 2014 after working in college counseling centers like UCSB and seeing a large demand for private mental health service providers.
“We both experienced this kind of frustration working at UCSB, where there was such a demand for our services, so many clients coming in that there was a real need to refer students out, especially students that were going to need longer term treatment,” Higginbotham said. “But it was so difficult to do that for a number of reasons.”
Tenika Jackson, clinical director of the Westwood location, said Acacia aims to give students access to more long-term treatment. Unlike CAPS which limits the number of appointments students can make, Acacia can immediately book 50 sessions for a patient, Jackson said.
“That’s why we’re here in Westwood,” Jackson said. “We specifically set up an agreement with UCLA to service their students.”
Students said they have experienced delays with CAPS.
Hattie Bleeker, a first-year communication student, said she has had an overall positive experience with CAPS, but has experienced long wait times.
“Whenever I call, they’re really polite; they try to get you in,” Bleeker said. “The only thing is that if you want to see a psychiatrist sometimes it takes more time to get an appointment.”
Destiny Hernandez, a third-year neuroscience student, visited CAPS in October and was told she could not be seen until Jan. 25, 2019.
“CAPS did not refer me to any outside sources but if I would have known that there was something else, I would have liked to talk to them,” Hernandez said.
Representatives from CAPS declined to comment.
Acacia chose Westwood for its next location because many students in the area need more long-term therapy options off campus, Donnelly and Higginbotham said. They added that Acacia provides treatment to all students covered by UC Student Health Insurance Plan.
Acacia offers a sliding scale payment system for those who do not have insurance or are still struggling to pay. Higginbotham and Donnelly also started a nonprofit, Resources, Outreach and Outpatient Therapy for Students fund, to provide need-based assistance exclusively for student patients.
“The ROOTS fund will be available to college students on a needs basis,” Donnelly said. “We reward students money according to their FAFSA and their (expected family contribution), or they can write a statement explaining why, even if their EFC is high, they might need the funding.”
Donnelly said that to promote accessibility, Acacia tried to locate within in a half-mile radius of where students live. Acacia offers digital counseling as well for students unable to reach the physical location. Higginbotham added the main feedback received from students is to incorporate more technology into their services.
“(Students) can text and make an appointment, or text and cancel an appointment,” Higginbotham said. “They can use teletherapy and do video sessions over breaks, so when the student goes away for the summer back home, and some of those things can be very emotionally triggering for them, they know they have Acacia to fall back on.”
Donnelly added this also allows students to access more diverse clinicians remotely.
“Say a UCLA student really wants to speak to a transgender therapist that’s out of (La Jolla, California,) they can connect to them via teletherapy,” Donnelly said. “They can utilize a much more diverse therapist pool.”
Jackson added that due to high demand from students, Acacia is constantly hiring and trying to tailor the clinic to students’ needs.
Jackson said over 100 students were referred after less than two months of being open, and their staff has nearly doubled from six people to 11. She added other Acacia clinics took a year and a half to reach this number of referrals.
“The whole point is to constantly meet the needs of the student,” Jackson said. “(Higginbotham and Donnelly) said they wanted to come and fill in the gaps, and they will do what it takes to fill in the gaps.”
In the future, Higginbotham and Donnelly plan on expanding their services to more campuses, including possibly the University of Southern California, UC Irvine and California State University campuses.