Leslie Easton aims to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness

Tessa Wojdylo

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Mental Health Coordinator Leslie Easton runs San Diego City College’s Mental Health Counseling Center. Providing care to underserved populations is part of Easton’s mission as a licensed clinical social worker.

“Since Leslie came to City, she’s changed and improved the program in vast leaps and bounds,” said professor Kathy McGinnis of the department of health and exercise science at City College. When Easton was hired in 2001 the mental health center ran as a crisis response clinic. “We still have plenty of that,” Easton said addressing the changes implemented since she took over. “Our focus is now primarily on prevention.”

Easton was originally hired as a dedicated support counselor for the Price Scholarship program at City College, previously known as the Saul Price Retain program, it changed names when Price Club sold to Costco. Not wanting to loose the scholarship, it was moved to City College and changed toward a career focus.

Scholars are students at risk who would not otherwise attend college. They are required to attend school full time, and complete about 400 hours of community service or service learning. Without proper resources and mentors, scholars quickly became overwhelmed and were at risk of dropping out. Easton said that Price didn’t want to create a negative self-image for the scholars.

When Price hired Easton she was given full control of the support program. Easton recalled Price had told her, “You’re the expert. You do what you think needs to happen.” Through required workshops and counseling sessions, Easton was able to reach struggling students before they reached a crisis state.

“It’s evolved over the years. I now teach a personal growth class where I get to see them weekly and continue to teach career readiness and personal skills,” Easton said. Easton explained that the program has been extremely effective, with an increase of students able to successfully complete the two years.

The federal government recently awarded the Mental Health Center with The Garrett Lee Smith Suicide Prevention Grant.

“It was literally hundreds of hours of work and probably 75 pages of documents,” Easton said. The three-year grant is for $272,000. Only 22 colleges nationwide received the grant. “The reality is that (grants) create a lot of work. But they create opportunities that I couldn’t have otherwise,” she explained.

“We have one of the best college Mental Health Counseling Centers in the nation and our professionals will work tirelessly to increase the awareness of the signs and symptoms of suicide to help prevent the loss of any more lives,” said City College President Anthony E. Beebe.

Student outreach programs such as the Mental Health Peer Educators are a big push of the grant. Emphasizing prevention, students and faculty are targeted to become gatekeepers. They are trained to be culturally sensitive, and to be aware of early warning signs and symptoms of distress. The personal connection created aims to reduce the mystery and stigma of seeking mental counseling.

“Reducing stigma is so much more about everybody saying it’s OK to ask for help,” Easton said. “Most people who walk through our door aren’t suffering from severe mental illness. They are suffering from lack of training of how to manage stress, anxiety and academics effectively.”

Easton said she is honored to have the opportunity to help people realize that seeking mental health support is a positive move and not something to be embarrassed about.

“City College is an amazing place to work,” she said. “The mental health program here has been supported by administration. To be able to provide the service that we provide for free … I can’t imagine working somewhere else.”

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