Santa Clara University

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They're people first

Students learn about mental disorders at a homeless shelter

Kristen Stokes and Katy Lackey
It's not clear-cut: Kristen Stokes, left, and Katy Lackey worked with clients at the Julian Street Inn. Photo: Charles Barry

Ben is 19 years old. Six years ago, Child Protective Services pulled him from his home because of his mother’s drug addiction. He’s heard voices, experienced hallucinations, and has explained that he can “get into people’s minds, control them, and stab them from the inside.” When he’s felt he was going to “go crazy,” he’s self-medicated: alcohol, marijuana, ecstasy, and crystal meth on a daily basis. Following treatment in a substance abuse facility, he was referred to the Julian Street Inn—a homeless shelter for clients with mental disorders, located in downtown San Jose.

That’s where Kristen Stokes, an SCU senior majoring in psychology, met him this fall, through an Arrupe Partnerships placement. Stokes was enrolled in Tom Plante’s course in Advanced Topics in Clinical and Abnormal Psychology—a capstone course for psychology majors. She and other students spent two hours per week working with clients who experience the stress of not only homelessness but also significant psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe personality disorders such as paranoid or borderline personality, as well as substance-abuse disorders such as alcoholism and illegal drug use and addiction.

Students participate in group treatment sessions, meals, and other activities at the shelter. They maintain ongoing conversations and interviews with the clients there and then return to the classroom and present the stories of the clients (while maintaining confidentiality) for discussion and better understanding of the interaction between homelessness and psychiatric and behavioral disorders.

Working one on one with clients, students can more fully understand how the complex influences of biological, psychological, and social factors create a situation that leads to homelessness. “You can see that it’s not clear-cut,” says Stokes. “It’s a culmination of different factors that don’t all look alike.”

Students also see how various treatment and social service approaches can help clients secure housing and a better quality of life. Katy Lackey, a 22-year-old senior majoring in psychology and religious studies, observes, “They’re people first—and then with an illness.”

A native of Frisco, Colo., Lackey coordinates work with the homeless for the Santa Clara Community Action Program. Through the Arrupe Partnerships placement at Julian Street Inn this fall, she worked with Brian, a man in his mid-40s who has battled mental illness most of his life. He’s abused prescription medications and imagined that he’s locked onto government conspiracies—then assembled incredibly elaborate charts detailing the networks. For what he’d learned, he thought the government was out to get him.

Lackey says that working with clients at Julian Street made her realize how family, jobs, education, and drugs might interact to create the horrible situations in which people like Brian and Ben find themselves. And, she says, it’s made her realize how difficult it is to get all the pieces of the system to fall back into place. “It’s not just getting one thing,” she says. “It’s getting all of it.”—SBS

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