UCI joins in helping shelter residents

Psychiatrists are finding a place to work out what they've learned in medical school while helping a needy population in Laguna Beach.

Men and women facing mental health struggles can talk with a psychiatrist at the Friendship Shelter, a transitional facility that houses 32 residents at a time.

Kay Ostensen, the shelter's clinical supervisor, forged a relationship with UC Irvine's School of Medicine to provide the psychiatrists, who are completing their residency requirements.

Angela Yu, in her fourth and final year of residency at UCI, started seeing shelter clients in July and is on board through June.

Yu, 29, works three to four hours per week and sees five to six clients during a shift. She is the fourth resident psychiatrist at the shelter since it began offering the free service in 2010.

Yu, along with the previous psychiatrists, provide a crucial service to shelter clients, Ostensen said.

"The need for mental health services is great," said Ostensen, a licensed psychologist and marriage, family and child therapist who was a school counselor and psychologist for the Laguna Beach Unified School District for 22 years.

"As much as we seek to work closely with county mental health [staff], there are not enough professionals to serve everyone. Our residents find it challenging to be living in a house of 32. Many [clients] have dual diagnoses ... . It's a vicious circle. They need assessment and counseling to pave the path toward independent living."

The shelter also has six program counselors, who meet with shelter residents when they move in, said Analisa Andrus, the shelter's self-sufficiency program manager.

One counselor is a part-time worker while the remaining five are interns from master's degree programs in social work, marriage and family therapy, and psychology, Andrus said.

"[Counselors] do an assessment and compile a client's history," Andrus said. "[Residents] are then referred to Dr. Yu for evaluation."

Unlike counselors, a psychiatrist can prescribe medication.

Yu, who grew up in St. Louis and graduated from the University of Missouri School of Medicine before heading west, said that when she learned about the shelter's psychiatry program, she leaped into action.

"I signed up right away," said Yu, an Orange resident.

Andrus said Yu has been asset to the shelter.

Yu has developed an affection for clients as she has listened to them and tried to help.

"I've learned a lot about the factors that can lead someone to becoming homeless," Yu said. "Homelessness can happen to anyone."

The mental illnesses that she deals with run the gamut, including the more common depression and anxiety. She also sees people with substance-abuse issues.

Yu has noticed that "shelter patients' symptoms are more severe" than those of clients who have steady jobs and have never been homeless.

As part of her residency program, Yu works at several clinics, including the Village of Hope in Tustin, a 192-bed transitional housing facility operated by the Orange County Rescue Mission, and the John Henry Foundation in Santa Ana, which treats clients with chronic schizophrenia.

Ostensen credits Friendship Shelter program committee member Edward Kauffman, UCI's director of psychiatric education from 1983 to 1991, with helping to forge the relationship with the university.

"The state of homelessness can create a mental health issue in and of itself," Ostensen said. "Instability in living conditions can spark mental illness. We look for unique solutions for every client."

Yu wants to stay in Southern California once she completes her residency and enjoys the drive to Laguna.

"It's a beautiful place," Yu said. "It's rewarding to see people get their lives back on track."

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