Going for the Silver

Counseling center celebrates 25 years of service

By Wendy Basil

Christopher Christian welcomes guests to a silver anniversary dinner in April.

Christopher Christian welcomes guests to a silver anniversary dinner in April.

It seems just right that the Community Counseling and Parent Child Study Center is celebrating its silver anniversary this year.

In psychological language, silver is associated with emotional balance. This precious metal is linked to wisdom and responsibility. It’s also a match for a few silver strands in the beard of Director Christopher Christian, Ph.D., who’s known as both smart and balanced. The modest, soft-spoken director is eager to discuss what’s next for the center and his ambitious dreams for its future.

Christian was on the tenure track in Long Island University’s Ph.D. program in clinical psychology before agreeing to foster a center with big plans in California. A licensed clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, he was intrigued by the idea of creating a “brain trust” where serious research could directly benefit an underserved community. Originally located in CLU’s Student Health Services, the center is now in its own building on campus, complete with 12 treatment rooms. Toys and sand trays indicate the play therapy areas.

“We teach and practice the following – respect for the patient, empathy and ethical behavior.” - Christopher Christian

Last year, the center celebrated a new mission and a new name. With a prominent focus on research, it was christened the Community Counseling and Parent Child Study Center. As part of its mission, the center is dedicated to helping train graduate students as mental health care clinicians. Christian believes in the concept of “theory into practice” as the best way to learn and to serve.

“My wife and I love being at Cal Lutheran University – she teaches in the Communication Department – because there’s a fresh approach to new ideas,” says Christian. Immediately, he set to work to gather the best and the brightest in the region for a Research Advisory Board. One of the highest compliments he has received is the acknowledgment that he helped bring together a unique intellectual community with service roots.

Enthusiasm and involvement

Mary Margaret Thomes, Ph.D., (l) founder of the counseling center, greets Chris Landon, M.D., recipient of the 2009 Friends of the Community Counseling Center Award, and his wife, Michele, at the silver anniversary dinner in April.

Shared enthusiasm led to sharing ideas and more community involvement. Today, the center has many community research partners. One important ongoing partnership is with the Mandalay Bay Women and Children’s Group of Oxnard to provide counseling for mothers at risk for postpartum depression.

In the fall, the center took note of the many incoming calls related to the psychological effects of the deteriorating economy. Families were frantic about losing their homes or their jobs, leading to strained marriages, alcohol and substance abuse, anxiety and depression. A generous grant from the Swift Healthcare Memorial Foundation along with a grant through the Lutheran Pastors’ Fund covered the cost of expanding crisis counseling. At a time when family counseling was most needed and least affordable, the center answered the call.

The Community Counseling Center was brought to life 25 years ago by graduate students who longed to combine training with service. In addition to providing services for CLU students, the center focused on the surrounding community. The core values endorsed by the University motivated students and instructors to reach out to underserved populations. Today, it is the only program of its kind at a university in Ventura County.

Christian, who was born in Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish, is committed to cultural relevance. Not only does the center offer Spanish-speaking services, but it also requires therapists to respect different points of view in regard to mental distress. The focus is on alleviating suffering in its many forms.

Variety of services

The center offers a wide variety of psychological services for children, adults, couples and families. Individual and group therapy is provided to help with depression, anxiety, marital problems, grief counseling and even eating disorders.

Therapy is provided by second-year trainees in the master’s in counseling psychology program who are closely supervised by one or more licensed professionals. The center offers student therapists opportunities to specialize and to benefit from professional training on-site. Most important, thinks Christian, is “that we teach and practice the following – respect for the patient, empathy and ethical behavior.”

Amber Hixon, MFT ’09, of Ventura with 7-year-old client. Interns are required to complete 180 hours of face-to-face counseling to graduate.

Joanna Evans will finish up her training at the center this year on her path to becoming a licensed marriage and family counselor. She became interested in counseling through service, having begun taking psychology courses while volunteering with Project Read in New York to teach jail inmates. A native Californian, Evans returned from the East Coast to enter Cal Lutheran’s counseling program in 2006. She works closely with supervisors Jodi Frey, MFT, and Morris Eagle, Ph.D., who recently joined the center as a clinical supervisor.

“Working at the community center has really opened my mind to working with many difficult and challenging situations,” says Evans, 39, who will graduate this spring. “We have wonderful supervision, which allows us to confront any issue that comes up for us as counselors. I love the work and am so impressed with the MFT program and the center.”


Affordable, high quality services

How does the community learn about the center? Word-of-mouth among family and friends of clients is a primary source, as well as referrals from community groups such as Interface Children Family Services in Camarillo. Christian is involved in an extensive outreach to local mental health professionals, including those in private practice.

The affordability of the high quality services is a big draw. Fees are based on family size and income, and can be as little as $20 per session. Some grants may cover all fees, and no one is turned away who is unable to pay.

The center’s brain trust today consists of internationally renowned researchers such as Allan Schore, Ph.D., on the clinical faculty of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA David Geffin School of Medicine; Elliot Jurist, Ph.D., Director of the Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology and professor of psychology at City University of New York; and many others.

Also on the advisory board is Chris Landon, M.D., a well-known children’s advocate. Founder of the Landon Foundation and the Pediatric Diagnostic Center at Ventura County Medical Center, he is also associated with both USC and UCLA.

“We learn so much from the families we treat and many of us are dedicated to giving back what we learn into the community,” says Landon.

The pediatrician received the 16th Annual David C. Fainer Award for physician of the year 2009 and is also a recipient of this year’s Friends of the Counseling Center Award.

Research emphasis

Morris Eagle, Ph.D., a clinical supervisor at the counseling center, delivered the keynote address at the 25th anniversary dinner.

Eagle, a professor emeritus from Adelphi University’s Derner Institute of Advanced Psychological Studies and a member of the center’s Research Advisory Board, conducts Wednesday research meetings attended by trainees, graduate students and faculty. In the future, the meetings will focus on original research and its application.

“The center really lends itself to be a research center,” said Eagle in a recent meeting in which he shared attachment research. Findings on bonding help therapists offer practical advice for parents, said Eagle, who is internationally known for his writings in the area of attachment.

“Even having new mothers leave the hospital with a Snugli to keep the baby close to her body facilitates bonding and is easy to implement,” adds Christian, who sees a future that includes nothing but possibilities.

“We are fortunate to be able to conduct research with direct application to the families we serve,” he says.

Looking at expanding training programs at Cal Lutheran to include more interaction with doctoral students, Christian is excited about engaging in interdisciplinary research and learning from other fields like anthropology and neuroscience. “We can’t afford to be insular in what Sigmund Freud himself called ‘one of the impossible professions,’” he jokes.

“We also plan to expand clinical understanding to a wider audience of students and our community,” adds Christian. “We’re even looking at popular media and movies to inform us – our screenings of Psycho during Reel Madness were very popular!”

Wendy Basil is a clinical psychotherapist who specializes in attachment at James P. Cole Psychological Services in Oxnard. She is an adjunct faculty member in psychology for the Adult Degree Evening Program (ADEP) at CLU.


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