‘We Have Such a Golden Opportunity’
By Matt Morgan
The stress of the pandemic has increased the need for mental health services in the United States. Mackenzie Vischer M.A. ’22 is ready to do her part to help.
For two years Mackenzie Vischer M.A. ’22 worked at Martin Luther King Middle School in Oceanside, California. In a social support position through the AmeriCorps program, Vischer bridged the gap between academic performance and mental health, counseling 30 at-risk students each week.
“I saw everything from English Language Development and ADHD cases all the way to anxiety, depression, trauma, and suicide,” Vischer says. Her focus was less on diagnosis and instead on real-time interventions. “If a client was having flashbacks in class, they could call me for a quick de-escalation meeting. We were the first line of defense in assessing where to provide resources for our clients.”
Vischer loved the work and the challenges that came with that age group. Middle schoolers can be resistant to engaging, so she tapped into her creativity, incorporating academic support, social-emotional learning, and even monthly social justice projects. One month, Vischer had students plant succulents as part of a sustainability initiative. Vischer and her students talked about resiliency as they decorated their succulents with items that gave them strength.
But it didn’t take long before Vischer realized the limitations of her role. “Because I just had an undergraduate degree in psychology it had to be more academically focused,” she says. “I wasn’t able to go as deep into mental health as I wanted.”
In 2019, Vischer decided to go back to get a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and her timing couldn’t have been better. Since joining the program at Santa Clara, she has witnessed America’s exploding mental health crisis, which has led to a renewed interest in mental health services.
As she re-enters the workforce with a new set of skills, Vischer is finding her teenage clients excited and prepared for their sessions—and parents eager to engage.
“We have such a golden opportunity at this moment,” Vischer says. “With that comes pressure, but I am better prepared than I ever expected to be because of this program.”
Vischer spent the last year working with the Community Health Awareness Council in Mountain View for her practicum. Two days a week, she counseled students at Sunnyvale Middle School, and once a week, she attended a three-hour reflection session led by SCU Adjunct Lecturer Vicky Tamashiro.
This program is about learning how you want to make change.
These reflections were guided by what the graduate students encountered in sessions with clients. Since each of the program’s emphases—Latino, LGBTQ, Health & Correctional— were represented, the practicum class became a “think tank” for new approaches. When Vischer shared that her clients were resistant to more direct approaches, for example, her practicum colleagues recommended approaches like art therapy and parallel play to help connect.
“It was clear we had a special group,” Vischer says. “We received such different feedback and alternative styles of therapy that we never really got stumped with a case.”
These sessions also helped Vischer pull back and examine larger systems at play with her clients. When they lashed out in school, Tamashiro encouraged her to consider what might be happening at home.
“Rather than just dealing with the client, I’m now asking: how can I support the parents?” Vischer says. “Before this program, I didn’t realize how much I could accomplish outside of the session.”
Central to this systems-driven approach is building trust with clients and their families. Over the last three years, Vischer deeply examined how she presented to clients. Not just intonation and eye contact, but how her racial identity as a white woman could impact her ability to build trust. “Receiving services from someone who looks like me is very different from receiving services from someone who is Latinx,” Vischer says. “That’s something that wasn’t really on my radar.”
In one class, Lecturer Ling Lam guided his graduate students through difficult conversations they needed to have with clients, around topics like bias and racism. He also explained the impact when therapists aren’t proactive in addressing these issues. Vischer remembers one class where they watched a video of therapists working with clients of color and broke down each interaction within a session and how it was received by the client.
“Seeing it from multiple angles highlighted how important it is,” Vischer says. “In order to have successful therapy, it’s going to be uncomfortable for me at times. There are going to be times for listening, but there's also definitely a time for genuine check-ins.”
Social justice and client advocacy were a big part of her education at Santa Clara, Vischer says. Through her classes, she heard migration stories, stories of healthcare disparities, and stories of microaggressions—each of which impact the way clients receive therapy. Moving forward, these topics have come to the forefront of her approach to mental health services.
“It’s always been inside me; the question is how do I bring it out?” Vischer says. “This program is about learning how you want to make change, what that means to you, and then incorporating it into your interventions.”