Free mental health care option in King County shakes up system

Demand for mental health care is skyrocketing, but communities of color are less likely to have access.

A new program is working to change all that with access totally free mental health care in South King County—no insurance needed.

The program is called “SKEWL” and stands for South King Emotional Wellness League.

“I got my master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling,” said Mike Swann, a licensed counselor and volunteer practitioner for SKEWL. He, along with all mental health specialists, are in high demand.

“It’s been pretty exponential,” Swann said. “It can take up to three months to find a therapist.”

Swann said just since January, his caseloads have gone up 25 to 35 percent.

He works as a licensed counselor on Talkspace, an online therapy company; works at Kitsap Mental Health Services on the weekends; and volunteers as a mental health provider for SKEWL.

“I’ve been working seven days a week other than PTO since march, but I love what I do. There is such a need. There’s such a desire to help people out there. I feel privileged honestly,” Swann said.

SKEWL is a new program created in 2020 specifically for residents of South King County, though it’s open to anyone.

Swann said when different community groups, including Seattle King County NAACP and Public Health—Seattle & King County, got together last year and asked for his help on SKEWL, he was all in right away.

“That’s been the whole goal of SKEWL, just supporting the community as best we can,” Swann said.

The program was started to address the heavy mental health toll of a social uprising and pandemic, both which disproportionately impact communities of color.

“Those folks are often not well served by traditional behavioral health services,” said Sarah Whilhelm, who is also part of SKEWL through Public Health.

“I’ve just found it both personally and professionally just very, very inspiring, and I think it gives me hope. Clearly, the pandemic was so hard on our communities in so many different ways, but some of these little silver linings might be we are able to reduce some of that stigma,” Wilhelm said.

There are big obstacles.

Minorities are not only less likely to have access — for example, jobs that offer mental heath benefits — but cultural differences can mean some people are color are less likely to seek out services.

Nori de la Pena, also with SKEWL and Public Health—Seattle & King County, is Filipino-American.

“Born U.S., and we have had have had quite a long history of mental health challenges in my family. My brother and sister have bipolar,” de la Pena said. “It’s not just something you can say, pray on it, and get more sleep. It’s not that easy,” she said.

She said their family got help through the emergency department and facilities like Western State Hospital.

But it took years for her family to fully understand and accept the mental health piece.

“We wanted to keep our family name, and didn’t want to bring any negative connotations to what we were dealing with,” de la Pena said. “Finally, it came to a point where it was no longer taboo,” she said.

Now she is part of the SKEWL program by helping connect mental health providers with people looking for help or support.

“So (it) was a really a passionate thing for me to do and (I’m) really glad to be a part of it,” de la Pena said.

Over the last year and a half, SKEWL has provided counseling at COVID-19 testing and vaccine events and had group therapy sessions about the impacts of racism, but the latest thing offered are free one-on-one sessions with a counselor. No insurance is needed and there is no paperwork.

“I just love the way we’re able to support one another without all the red tape and insurance and billing and all of those things,” Wilhelm said.

The latest data from the American Psychological Association shows last year, about about 84% of psychologists are white.

Even when people of color do find a therapist, data shows minorities are more likely to receive poor care and end services prematurely, according to the National Institute of Health.

“I actually encountered that with people. ‘I don’t have any therapists here I can relate to.’ They don’t share the same background, so that’s a real challenge being able to relate to clients,” Swann said.

The counselors who volunteer at SKEWL are mostly people of color.

“Giving people a chance to talk with a professional is a great thing to do. And the fact that it’s free and all you have to do is sign up on the Eventbrite and you’ll see a counselor that day,” Swann said.

He says the people who’ve signed up to use SKEWL’s services are not necessarily in crisis, but just folks who’ve had trouble finding care, or didn’t know where to start.

" We are giving people a voice, a place to talk about things with a professional, an uninterested third party, per say. And I think that’s really monumental for people,” Swann said.

You can sign up for individual help through SKEWL’s Facebook page or also find access to join group sessions there.

“What I’d like to do is make sure that people of color understand they have options. They don’t have to go at this alone,” Swann said.

SKEWL led a group talk on Thursday called “COVID: A conversation on Trauma, Stigma, Grief, & Growth” and will have its next group discussion in December.

One-on-one session nights are available once a month.