Even on the night before his wedding this past October, Michael Swann was counseling a new client about a stressful moment in her life. She was the last session of the evening and Swann was in his bedroom in Kenmore, listening and reminding her about the positive steps she’d taken so far — including coming to this free session.

“Whenever you need a counselor to talk to someone, just let me know,” said Swann. “And I’ll be there. I don’t care what I have going on. That’s how much I love this stuff.” 

Swann is a mental health counselor at Kitsap Mental Health Services, previously an Army Reserve combat medic, and a licensed practical nurse. Most recently, he’s the health chair with the Seattle King County NAACP, where he’s been part of a collaboration between the 108-year old organization, Public Health – Seattle & King County, and several other groups to form SKEWL: The South King County and Emotional Wellness League.

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

SKEWL aims to bring community mental health care to local communities of color by providing virtual, free group and individual sessions. While the program is focused on King County residents, it’s open to anyone. (Their next listening session is in December and you can sign up at st.news/skewl).

The mental health professionals are all volunteers, the clients don’t need to provide their insurance information, and about every month, people can virtually meet for free with a counselor or healer for a 55-minute session. The majority of volunteers and participants are Black, Indigenous, or people of color. 

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Contrast that with what Swann said is about a 3-month wait for some of his formal, paying clients and the high cost of counseling, even for those who are insured. According to Psychology Today, an average session with a therapist can cost anywhere from $100-$200, and though some offer sliding scales, it also depends on whether the therapist accepts insurance, and how much the insurance covers. Many companies ask that clients pay a portion and will not reimburse for an out-of-network provider. 

The need may be particularly high in the Seattle metro area: Recent U.S. Census Bureau data shows more than half of the adult population in the region experiences some level of anxiousness. Elsewhere, rural communities also have a hard time accessing services, with places like Garfield County reporting only one mental health provider for more than 2,300 residents. Because SKEWL is not an official counseling session, volunteer providers can see clients in any city, even out of state. 

SKEWL also offers space for new counselors to complete their training. Through the program, counselors-in-training can also complete state requirements which include 3,000 hours of supervised work before they can work independently.

“This has been a nice opportunity for them to have an opportunity to serve their own communities and also meet those licensure requirements,” said Sarah Wilhelm, a program manager at Public Health – Seattle & King County overseeing schools and community partnerships. 

SKEWL seeks to take conversations on mental health further by allowing clients to talk about COVID-19 and the way racial injustice has affected their experiences as people of color. 

The first event of its kind was hosted by the Emerald City Seventh Day Adventist Church in the Central District back during the summer of 2020, at the height of the protests for racial justice. The group offered both coronavirus testing and 60 slots for a free therapy session in what was dubbed a “Community Mental Health Day.” In October 2020 it officially became SKEWL and since then has taken most of its events online due to the pandemic.

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So far, the group estimates they’ve been able to serve around 500 people. 

Norilyn de la Pena coordinates volunteers for the events through her work with the community well-being initiative at Public Health – Seattle & King County. She said the concerns participants bring include issues with their housing and job problems like racism in the workplace. Primarily, though, “the things that we’re seeing are depression and anxiety. People are feeling pretty lonely and down and not being able to connect.”

SKEWL tries to connect participants to resources in their city or county. They’ve also experimented with the events’ parameters. For example, at first they tried Saturday mornings but realized a lot of people were either working or wanted to relax on weekends, and if they were parents, usually had to take care of their kids. Midweek evenings were better attended. 

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Most recently, de la Pena has noted that more people from the Seattle area’s East African community are coming to the events, which she hopes means word of the mouth is getting around and trust is forming.

Still she knows there’s more than one way to gauge the success of the program. 

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“On the provider side, they’re saying, ‘It’s not about the numbers. If we can reach one person that’s the most bang for the buck. It could be, potentially, a life saved,’” she said. 

In the future, SKEWL’s organizers hope the program will be able to secure funding, potentially paying providers for their services, or setting up collaborations with universities so psychology students can complete their hours while working in the community. 

If that hope becomes a reality, one of those students may be Swann’s new wife, Amber, who is studying to become a mental health counselor herself. 

Swann said Amber he didn’t mind the late-night work her fiancé took on their wedding eve, recognizing how vital counseling can be during this time. 

“Behavioral health does not take a break,” Swann said. “I didn’t have an inkling that I would have a 9-5.”  

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times