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Leslie Galbraith, a graduate student in Pacific's department of psychology, leads a class in coping techniques at the Martin Gipson Socialization Center in Stockton as part of her work with the Community Re-Entry Program.

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Psychology students help mentally disabled live independently

Students apply their knowledge, prepare for their careers, and serve their community through Pacific's innovative program.
Jennifer LanghamFeb 1, 2015

Hidden in the halls of the Department of Psychology is the office of a program with an unassuming name. For 30 years, the Community Re-Entry Program has quietly helped 380 mentally disabled individuals a month while educating Pacific students in how to serve this vulnerable population.

A partnership between the university and the San Joaquin County Office of Mental Health, the CRP began in the late 1970s when the movement to deinstitutionalize mentally disabled people created a critical need for services to help them reintegrate into the community.

Executive Director Cris Clay, the Pacific administrator who is responsible for overseeing the county-funded program, says that the CRP uses applied behavior analysis and skills training-often taught by Pacific undergraduate and graduate students -as part of individualized treatment for very specific problems.

Like smoking in the wrong places.

Clay explains, "Mentally ill clients who live in care facilities aren't allowed to smoke in their bedrooms-the facilities could lose their licenses over that-so we help people to retrain themselves to smoke only in the appropriate places. It sounds like a small thing, but it makes a difference in a person having a place to live or not."

Some clients of the CRP work one-on-one with licensed behavior specialists others visit the Martin Gipson Socialization Center, a drop-in center where Pacific graduate and undergraduate students teach several classes a week on topics such as stress management, social skills, and medication management. Leigh Pratt, a graduate student in Pacific's master of arts program in behavioral psychology, taught classes at Martin Gipson as part of her internship program and admits she was nervous before she started.

"There's a negative stigma about people who are mentally ill," says Pratt, "but from my first day working there, I really had fun. These are adults, just like you or me, who happen to have some problems that we can help them with."

Pratt describes working with one client whose extreme anxiety caused her to hurt herself but who went on to learn coping skills and to get a job in the community. "I met her at a scary time for her, but a year later she was doing really well, and she thanked me for my help," says Pratt. "It's rewarding to help these people," she says, "It's empowering."

Pacific is one of just a few universities in California with coursework that is nationally certified by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board. Psychology graduate students who complete the courses and required internship hours are prepared to sit for the exam to become board-certified applied behavior analysts.  

Applied behavior analysis, rooted in B.F. Skinner's theory of behaviorism, focuses on changing behavior through positive reinforcement of desired behaviors and negative reinforcement of undesirable ones. Researchers and practitioners of the approach, like Pacific Psychology Professor Matt Normand, are interested applying behavioral principles to problems such as autism, smoking cessation, obesity, physical fitness and other community health issues.

Normand, current editor of The Behavior Analyst, is the 2011 recipient of the B. F. Skinner New Researcher Award from the American Psychological Association. 

Graduate students get tuition remission and a paid internship for working with the CRP, and undergraduate students earn minimum wage for teaching at Martin Gipson. Working with mentally ill clients in the CRP also makes Pacific undergraduates very attractive candidates for clinical jobs -- and graduate work.

Graduates of the MA program have gone on to work for agencies such as Trumpet Behavioral Health, Therapeutic Pathways, and Stockton Unified School District; others have been accepted into doctoral programs around the country.

Clay speaks passionately about the science behind applied behavior analysis and the practical application of that science to mental health and other disabled populations. He says that the work of the CRP benefits not only the mentally ill clients it serves, but the staff and students who deliver the training.

"It's powerful to change someone's life for the better," he says. "Students feel proud of how they've helped someone. They say, 'I did that!'"