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UF Graduate Students Offer Free Therapy To Those In Need

There are many equal access clinics in Gainesville that provide free services to the underserved. Only one focuses specifically on mental health.

Free Therapy Night is a mental health clinic staffed by volunteer graduate students studying clinical health psychology. It runs on Monday nights from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the Gainesville Community Ministry. The doors are open to everyone, including those barred from assistance elsewhere by one simple thing — money.

“Sometimes the neediest people are the ones with no health insurance,” Free Therapy Night co-director Aliyah Synder, said. “I’m continually shocked with what these folks are coming in with, the difficulties of their lives and how few resources they have. It’s remarkable because the general public has no idea these folks exist.”

Synder, 29, says the most common cases are depression and anxiety, but they see people with a wide variety of problems. One patient had dementia. Another was actively hallucinating. There’s no age range, either. Free Therapy Night has worked with patients from 18 to 70 years old.

The clinic, founded in 2010, is constantly searching for ways to reach more patients. In February, it began a partnership with UF Health’s Care One clinic, which provides services to over-utilizers of the UF Health Shands Hospital E.R.

Once patients present to the E.R. eight or more times in a 12-month period, they are sent to Care One to see if group cognitive behavioral therapy could help them. If individual help is better, they can now be referred to Free Therapy Night.

“I think that it’s easier for some patients to get there in the evening,” Dr. Lori Waxenberg, a Care One consultant and clinical professor at UF, said. “It’s a comfortable location for patients, easy to park and get in. It’s a really good match between patient and provider and location.”

Waxenberg said the Care One clinic has about five slots for intakes each day. Free Therapy Night runs with seven volunteer therapists as well as administrative staff and can serve about nine patients at a time.

They are currently working with two referrals from Care One and say the treatments are going well.

“We use a cognitive behavioral therapy approach,” Synder said. “A lot of what we do is a blend of social work and psychology, helping our patients get access to resources that they can kind of further develop themselves through.   Skills that they can take with them and use in the future.”

Free Therapy Night volunteers are also looking into the connection between Waxenberg’s specialty—chronic pain—and mental illnesses. Many over-utilizers of the emergency room come with chronic pains such as chest pains related to severe anxiety. In these cases, effective treatment includes addressing that anxiety.

It is a small operation. In order to reach the widest amount of people possible, it operates on short-term basis. Each patient’s treatment stretches for five one-hour Monday sessions.

“Therapy is helping people address mental health problems they may be living with,” Brittany Peters, a licensed clinical health supervisor of Free Therapy Night, said. “Just because we are suffering doesn’t mean we can’t fulfill our lives. The purpose of therapy is to provide that frame of reference.”

The clinic is working on expanding its staff and effectiveness by creating resource lists to lead patients to other beneficial services. They recently finished a research study to prove that Skype sessions with therapists are just as effective as in-person meetings.

Now, they are attempting to expand their community reach to as many people as possible.

“This is something that I’ve been wanting to work with,” Waxenberg said. “I’m really glad to have this relationship between the two clinics. I think it serves our patients so well. It’s able to provide services for those who would not be able to receive them otherwise.”

Dahlia is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.