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FLC students say the summer internship at Napa State Hospital is life-changing.

By Alicia Durkin

It is a rare opportunity that undergraduate students are permitted at Napa State Hospital. The stakes are high when working with a clinically, mentally ill population of this degree.

For 27 years, Dr. Tom Skukry, has brought a group of psychology students to the hospital for a field study trip that many say they will never forget.

“Fort Lewis College students have built a really respectable reputation and psychologists at Napa look forward to their one-month long visit every year,” said Skurky, who is a professor at FLC specializing in clinical psychology.

“Psychologists have examples of how certain patients thrive and got out of the hospital more quickly because they worked with Fort Lewis College students,”  Skurky said.

Most psychology students who attend the trip are juniors or seniors interested in potentially working with the clinical population, he said.

Dr. Skurky requires that students have some experience working with a clinical population and have taken an abnormal psychology course, he said.

“The trip is an opportunity for students to decide whether or not they might want to work with institutionalized people, and some may determine they don’t want to work with people this chronically, mentally ill,” Skurky said.

“Students learn a lot about themselves because it’s a high-stress situation,” he said. “Patients are very un-predictable; you don’t know what you’re going to get day to day.”

This summer’s six students were a really well matched six that worked well together, he said.

For Carl Mullen, a senior psychology major at FLC, who attended this summer’s Napa trip, no college course could have prepared for this experience, he said.

“I think more classes should have a practical element to the class,” Mullen said,  “We learned more in five weeks then we did in our entire abnormal class.”

People outside of the psychology realm may not know what to expect of a state hospital and many stereotypes depict a cold and frightening atmosphere, he said.

“At least the state hospitals we are working with are not just warehouses, rather there is really good clinical work being done by some really dedicated, professional psychologists.” Skurky said.

A few of the students learned how important it is to separate a patient from his or her mental illness.

“These are people with mental illnesses, not just mental illnesses with people in the background,” said Sloan Kodroff, an FLC psychology major set to graduate in December.

The role of the students as a social support system for patients was an integral part of their fieldwork.

“Many patients at the hospital lack in traditional social relationships, which FLC students helped to provide throughout their stay,” said Andrea Bailey, a psychology and Spanish major at FLC.

“Our role was to be there to interact and get to know people and be there as a new face more then less,” Bailey said, “Help them in a way not necessarily through therapy but in a social way.”

For one patient at the hospital who was not fluent in English, Bailey’s ability to communicate in Spanish helped him to regain some of the normalcy he had lost at the hospital, she said.

“One was Mr. A, a gentlemen from Cuba,” she said. “I liked working with him because I’m also majoring in Spanish as well as psychology, so that was really cool to use both of those together because we spoke in Spanish.”

Due to a lack of funding, the hospital is currently understaffed, leaving the psychologists busy and unable to provide extended one-on-one time with the patients, she said.

The students worked to help the patients speak openly and comfortably about themselves without the anxiety of being judged, she said.

“You see a lot of people in unfortunate situations in their lives, but you can tell that’s not really who they are, that’s not who they want to be, that’s not what they’re proud of,” Bailey said, “They want another chance more or less, and they really got that from us being there because we came open minded.”

Aside from the general public, many of the patients have also become cut off from their families and friends, adding to the need for extended social support from the students.

Kodroff hopes to return to the hospital and check-in with some of the patients who he grew close to during the trip, he said.

“I still think about these guys like every single day and they haven’t left my life at all,” he said. “I feel like that would just be so incredibly important to them, especially those who have like trust issues and abandonment issues, just to demonstrate that there are people out there in the world that do care, and like really validate their worth to society.”

While the patients touched many of the students during their trip, the experience will also greatly benefit students as they begin to focus on entering a career or graduate school.

“The entry-level job is disappearing,” said Tana Verzah, a career councilor for the Department of Behavioral Arts and Sciences.

“The new entry-level job is the internship,” Verzah said.  “Getting this experience is really valuable.”

Students recognized how the opportunity might help them down the line, though they were more interested in the relationships that they forged with patients and how their worldviews had changed.

“Honestly, I went into Napa with the idea of like I just need my resume, I just need something to look good on my resume, and I came away with like, sure I got my letter, sure I got to put it on my resume, but I came back a completely different person and I wouldn’t change it for the world,” Kodroff said.

“The lessons and experiences gained during the trip related not only to people with mental illnesses, but to life in general,” Kodroff said.

The trip drastically changed the way in which he interacts with people on an interpersonal level in the community, he said.

As far as advise for all FLC students, “being nice to people is awesome,” he said.

“I think it goes back to, how dare anyone in society try and assume someone else’s perspective on reality because you don’t know people’s past, you don’t know people’s goals, you don’t know like what’s going on in their head in terms of biochemistry,” he said

There’s so much going on with people that assumptions are stupid, he said.

The trip is fairly expensive for many on a college budget and requires students to spend a month away from summer jobs, however, the students considered their money and time well invested, noting that they benefited as much from the patients as the patients did from them.

“They have the right to be happy like everybody else, there are values in our culture that don’t allow them to benefit from society, and vice versa.  We can benefit from them as well,” Kodroff said.

The following information is from Jim Jones, senior psychologist at Napa State Hospital, concerning the 2011 Fort Lewis summer practicum at Napa State Hospital.

The interest and enthusiasm of the students has always been infectious in that our staff have reacted positively to them and their presence have helped to recharge our staff’s interest and motivation in their clinical work. Since they are here in the summer the students have been able to participate in a variety of outdoor activities and enhance the quality of these events through their work and added support. Their willingness to sit down and to talk with patients on the units have consistently been a powerful and beneficial experience for the patients despite that the students are here only for a limited time. Positive interpersonal experiences are always welcome and the students consistently have demonstrated kindness, caring, and interest in the people who live at the hospital.

The students who worked with the patients who have a 1370 CA penal code status were able to directly assist in the patient’s completion of the trial competency program and their return to Court as trial competent. A PC 1370 status is a legal commitment that means the patient was found at Court to be incompetent to stand trial. Subsequently, they are sent to the hospital for restoration of their sanity which would allow their adjudication on the charges against them. There is a structured treatment program for these patients who tend to have a briefer hospitalization as compared to the other patients at the hospital.

The Fort Lewis students have provided additional instruction to many PC 1370 patients which has resulted in their completing the trial competency program more quickly. Some of the patients who worked with the students have been able to be assessed as competent and returned to Court before the students have ended their summer practicum.

As another example, the students developed a trial competency “Jeopardy” game, modeled after the television game show. This was an amazingly creative and successful activity that generated much attention and participation. The biggest complement to these students is the fact that the game continues to be used. This approach was something that our professionals learned from the students.

Thank you