MHConcierge interviewed Brett Donnelly, PsyD, LP, co-owner of Acacia Counseling and Wellness.  Acacia has three clinics, two in California and one in Minneapolis, and is in the process of adding more clinics.  Acacia’s mission is to serve students, faculty and staff in university communities.  Brett used his unusual (for a psychologist) marketing background to develop Acacia’s services, and for ongoing refinement.  Acacia has a non-profit foundation to support students in need of financial assistance for mental health services.  Acacia also has strong social justice and “woke” values, and a thriving social media presence.

The interview was edited for clarity and conciseness.  The full interview is available here. 

(MHC) Brett, thanks for sitting with me for this interview.  Let’s start with what telling us about your clinics.

About Acacia Counseling

(BD) We are Acacia Counseling and Wellness, a mental health company that focuses on supporting college students, and faculty and staff at universities.  Our clinics are focused on being highly accessible to university students, who can’t otherwise get the support at the university.  Often the demand is too high for the college counseling centers to handle, or they need more long-term services than the college service provides.

(MHC) I understand that at a national level there’s a shortage of resources for college students.

(BD) Yeah, it’s a national problem. If we could move fast enough we could probably be in 100 different college campuses right now, but we can only grow so quickly. The demand is high, and this is one of the reasons that we kind of fell into this.

(MHC) Tell us about your Minneapolis clinic.

(BD) We have about 10 clinicians. We are a training site, so we take practicum students and pre-license doctoral trainees.  We have relationships with both U. of M. training programs….

We also have our two original clinics in California, Santa Barbara and Davis. And, we are opening a clinic at in Los Angeles, at UCLA, in the Fall. We also have some projects in the works at USC, UC- San Diego, and another school in Minnesota that I can’t quite mentioned yet.

Getting Started

(BD)… For my practicum and internship training I worked in a college counseling center.  I’ve always loved working with students.  I just feel like you’re meeting them at a time in their life when there’s a possibility of growth and change, and there’s this openness and willingness to examine oneself.  It’s really unique to that particular age.  One of the problems was that every single college counseling center that I worked at would get full so quickly, and we would have to figure out what are we going to do with these students? –  we didn’t have the staff to handle the demand.

(MHC) So you had your ration the resources?

(BD) Yeah, it was either one of two ways:  either you would put them on a waitlist and it would be a 3-4 month long wait list.  Or, you would limit sessions to 3-5 sessions.  If you’re lucky you get 10 sessions at college mental health centers these days.

(MHC) How did you start your clinics in California?

(BC) Keith (Higgenbotham, PsyD) the other owner of Acacia, and I we were in our post-doc year, and were referring students out like crazy to all these individual providers in the community. We were finding that many of the students weren’t following through on their treatment referrals.  So, we kept on inquiring as to why.  Well, there is a lot of reasons why.  One is, individual practitioners get full fast, and the student might call two or three different places, kept being told that they were full, and were ready to give up.  Also, accessibility in terms of traveling was a problem. A lot of college students may not have access to vehicles, or taking a bus was a problem.

(MCH) So they experienced barriers to accessing treatment.

(BC) Exactly! … So, Keith and I start talking, to try to solve these problems at the University of California – Santa Barbara.  We began renting space from a local church, the Unitarian Church. The pastor was going on maternity leave, and so she’s like, “Hey if you want to use these offices go for a while, go ahead.”  So, we got these offices, and filled up our caseload in a matter of weeks.  We realized pretty quickly that if we want to continue to meet the needs of the students, we would need to hire other providers and move into a bigger space.

Why Students?

(MHC) Did you have a natural interest, sort of an organic interest, in serving the population, or did you kind of stumble onto this part of your exposure during your training?

(BD) I had an organic interest. When I was in college, it was the first time that I received a therapy myself.  I was a first-generation college student, so I felt the University gave me an identity, and it was right at the same time when I was trying to form my identity.  So, knowing how important that time was for me as a as an individual, really led me to want to work with that population

(MHC) Cool. And, it’s OK to include your personal info in this interview?

(BD) Yeah, That’s the organic part, and on top of that I also had marketing and business experience.

Clinical and Business Opportunities

(BC) …  That was my first love, actually, marketing.  I worked at a marketing agency in downtown Chicago for year. I worked on a national television advertising accountant and  had a lot of exposure to business prior to graduate school.

(MHC) So in Santa Barbara you saw business opportunity as well as clinical opportunity?

(BD) Yes, yes, absolutely!  The first thing we did before even starting the clinic was market research.  That’s a big part of my background, knowing how to do market research, what questions to ask, how to reach a community and figure out if there is a need for what we want to offer to this particular community.

(MHC) Have you ever considered offering your services as a business consultant for local mental health providers?

(BD) Right now, I’m just so focused on what we’re doing at Acacia that I haven’t put much time or effort into that, but that would certainly I would certainly welcome doing that.

(MHC) OK, so how long did it take you to your marketing research and get up to speed for starting the clinic?

(BD) It was probably a couple of months.  We led some focus groups, gave away lots of free pizza. We talked about everything –  like what kind of therapist are you looking for?  What kind of office ambience are you looking for?  I’m a big believer that if you want to successful practice or business, no matter what kind of business you are doing, if you can tailor everything to the needs of your customers, you’re going to be successful.  As long as you can keep being open to feedback, you can figure out ways to get better. We continue to do market research as we grow.

…We want to be relevant to students. Also, we do quarterly satisfaction surveys, not only about their clinical experience but also their experience at the front desk, their experience of Acacia, our social media, what kind of services are looking for – are they wanting psychiatry, are they wanting more yoga? That’s part of ongoing market research that we do – asking where are we falling short, how do we get better?

(MHC) Do you do outreach to students?  It seems to me that there would be tremendous opportunity for this, like offering stress management or study skills seminars.

(BC) Yes, we do a lot of outreach. One of the ways we can reach students and keep a pulse on their problems in the student population is we will hire students as a marketing admins.  We try to find someone who has ties to organizations like Active Minds or NAMI. And, we connect with local on campus student organizations, including reaching out to local fraternities and sororities.

We definitely do a lot of outreach with the local college counseling center. We want to be really careful with universities to let them know that we’re not at all trying to step on their toes, that we actually want to work collaboratively with them. We hope that they can see that we’re out doing this because we care about their students.  Our model exhibits this care with the clinical work that we do, and with our nonprofit.

Starting a Non-Profit: Acacia Roots

(MHC) Tell us about your nonprofit.

(BD) The nonprofit is called Acacia Roots. It is all about providing funds for students who need therapy, need psychiatry, but don’t have the resources – can’t afford the $15 co-pay each week, or they have a different insurance rather than the student health insurance plan, or if they have a high deductible. For whatever reason, if they can’t afford treatment, Acacia Roots is a way for them to access 100%-funded treatment

(MHC) I noticed you made a point that you are the first generation in your family to go to college. Are students that are first generation likely to experience more challenge and barriers?

(BD) Absolutely! That’s what fuels my passion.   I grew up in a low-income household, was first generation to attend college, attended the University of Wisconsin- Madison.  I couldn’t afford a lot of the resources.   So, the passion that drives me is that I want to be able to provide that to people who were in my circumstances, to be able to provide a way for them to get the mental health treatment that they need.

(MHC) How so you raise funds for Acacia Roots?

(BD) So far, we have just been going to local restaurants or local businesses and asking if we can do some sort of fundraiser.  It’s my first experience with a nonprofit, and we’re going through some growing pains, trying to figure out how do you find donors and how to find people that can help us with this organization while we’re still trying to also run Acacia Counseling.

Acacia Roots has a fiscal sponsorship with NAMI Minnesota. I met them at the Pride Festival. We had nothing but positive experiences with NAMI.  We are hoping to get these fundraising efforts solidified before we take the jump to becoming our own non-profit.  It is a lot of work and takes a lot of resources.

Integrating Clinical, Business and Social Justice Values

(MHC) … You sound interested in social justice issues.

(BD) Definitely. And, if I might speak to that, I think a lot of people are a bit taken back by this, but I think you can have both business and social justice goals. I have this really large business background but I also have a really large social justice background. I come from Adler University, which is one of the leading social justice-oriented programs in the country.  So, when people hear about the business side of Acacia, and how excited I am about it – marketing or finance or whatever – sometimes it seems to be at odds with the social justice side. But, I actually think they can work seamlessly together.

Technology: Telehealth, Podcasts, Social Networking

(BD) … One of our core values is to be as technologically advanced as possible.  When you are working with students, they are on the cutting edge of technology…. From the very start we have utilized telehealth.  When students go on breaks they’re going home, which can be really triggering, maybe abuse or a lot of stress happening at home.  We really rely on telehealth to supplement their treatment.

(BD) …. One of the really exciting things that we started this year was a mental health podcast called, “Sincerely Not OK.” It’s run by two of our employees at Acacia, a clinician and our office manager, both highly talented highly and creative people. They do things like interview mental health professionals, or maybe they talk about their own experience with mental health, or if someone wants to come in and talk about their experience with treatment.  It is posted on our websites for all our clinics.

Also, we definitely make use of Twitter, Instagram, Facebook.

(MHC) Who creates the content?

(BD) At every clinic we have a marketing admin and students, and we train them about the values of the company, what kind of material we’re looking to post. They create a month’s worth of content and then share it in advance with a supervisor.  The content is really important – we want to stay as “woke” as we can.

(MHC) Help me out with “woke.”

(BD) It is a social justice term, and I think that a lot of college students use this as a term that basically means awareness of social justice issues, of your own privilege, of being “awake and aware.” We’re trying to be that organization that stays at the forefront of that.

Hopefully, we are always trying to push the edge but not ruffle too many feathers. We are always careful running social media posts by Jess, our Business Services Director, to make sure that the content fits our company’s values. So far, it’s been going really well.

(MHC) How about Facebook?

(BD) …. Our social media accounts are all connected, so when we Tweet it’s also put on Facebook, and vice versa. Facebook is becoming less of a player in the student community.  I think students are more and more utilizing Instagram and Twitter, less and less Facebook.

(MHC) How do you use Instagram?

(BD) We do a lot of wellness events, and we use Instagram to make sure that people know that these workshops are going on, and we capture the experience through photos.  We take photos of our therapy dogs. We take photos of our yoga nights, our movie nights.  Anytime we can take a picture and share them, in compliance with HIPAA of course, we want to make sure that the people know about us.

(MHC) What do you see as the potential for Snapchat.  I can’t figure that one out, as a clinical social networking too.  How is it different than Instagram?

(BD) Now we start getting into me being a little bit old! (laughs) I’m in my 30s.  This is where I think having students as employees is great, because we can ask them, “What can we do with Snapchat, help me understand this this platform, can we reach students this way?” So far, the answer is, “No, we haven’t been able to,” but if anyone out there knows a lot about Snapchat, I’m all ears.

Advice for New Clinicians

(MHC) This has been a great discussion. I have a last question: what advice do you have for newly licensed clinicians?

(BD) Graduate programs often don’t do a great job of providing business training. So, make sure you ask a ton of questions. Find people that are smarter than you, have done what you seek to do, pick their brain, try to get as much help as you can, try to read books, articles – how to create a business plan, how to find an accountant.  Try to get as much business education in addition to your clinical education as you can.

(MHC), OK, Brett, it has been a great discussion, thanks very much.

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