Students in green scrubs caring for the elderly, working with people at a recent Special Olympics event and motioning words in sign language were among the pictures that scrolled over a large screen in a conference hall at Atascadero State Hospital during a graduation Friday for newly minted psychiatric technicians.
Among the graduates was April McGill, who took the program to learn new and specialized nursing skills so that she can better help the developmentally disabled, among others.
Forty-three-year-old McGill of Paso Robles was one of 21 graduates Friday from the Atascadero State Hospital and Cuesta College School of Psychiatric Technology’s intense 12-month program that combines academic and hands-on clinical experience. When the students pass their state board exams, their license is the equivalent of a licensed vocational nurse, officials said.
Known more commonly as psych techs, they provide nursing and therapeutic services for the mentally ill, emotionally disturbed or developmentally disabled under the direction of a physician, psychiatrist or registered nurse.
“That’s the cornerstone of the work we do here at the hospital — the face-to-face work,” senior ASH psych tech Richard Marshall said during the graduation.
At state mental hospitals, psych techs often see patients in distress. Sometimes those interactions turn violent, and the techs are trained for that possibility. Still, injuries can occur.
Students are expected to complete 1,662 hours of training during the program before applying for their license. If they get a full-time state job, their salary ranges from about $54,000 to $62,000 per year.
Friday’s graduates expect to take their board exams in the coming weeks.
The program, offered three times a year, costs students about $2,800. It has been around for more than 40 years at ASH, a high-security state hospital that treats mentally ill violent offenders from the correctional system.
Cuesta College became a partner in the program about 12 years ago.
“An 18-year-old person who graduated high school can attend, and within a year have a great career ahead of them,” said nurse instructor Susan Jones, noting that the only prerequisite is to pass college level math and English exams.
The prospect of a career attracted 24-year-old Lourena Perry of Atascadero to the program when she joined at the advice of her mother, who is also a psych tech.
“I wanted something stable, and I love it,” Perry said, noting she wants to become an advocate for the mentally ill.
Graduation from the program doesn’t guarantee psych techs a position at ASH, but it opens them up to a wider job market.
Licensed psych techs are recognized throughout the state, said Liz Souza, the nursing administrator who manages the psych tech school. Most use the training in state hospitals and psychiatric programs, while others work in county facilities, private institutions, addiction treatment centers and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, she said.
Some also use their new skills as a precursor to Cuesta’s registered nurse program, Jones said.
The state has consistently recognized the program because of the high rate of graduates who pass their state board exams, Souza said. Atascadero resident Randy Scheiderer, 55, is looking forward to getting licensed and applying to ASH to launch a second career after working as a plumbing contractor.
“It was interesting to be exposed to different learning styles and the ability to help so many different types of people,” he said.