AMCS works to improve mental health for its clients and the community

Mar 4, 2016


For 55 years, the Airport Marina Counseling Service (AMCS) has served as a haven for both people seeking help during life’s most difficult times and  those struggling with mental illness.

With a milestone anniversary this year, the Westchester-based nonprofit  has a lot to celebrate: they help an average of 1,300 clients per year, they have trained thousands of therapists and they’ve recently expanded their group class offerings and psychiatry program, all with the goal of aiding their clients to find new, healthy ways to cope with life’s challenges.

Next month, AMCS will hold the “Spring into Well-Being” fundraiser, its largest of the year, to raise money to fulfill its mission to provide affordable, community-based mental health services and to train mental health therapists. The event will take place on Saturday, April 2 at LMU.

The HomeTown News recently spoke with AMCS’ Executive Director Eden Garcia-Balis to learn more about the organization and how it is helping improve mental health in the community. Below is the Q&A.

Q. AMCS is celebrating its 55th anniversary this year. What are some of the things your organization has to celebrate?

A. We have many things to celebrate including our wonderful, caring therapists and staff, our newly renovated space and our community of friends. However, chief among the reasons to celebrate is the fact that AMCS has been able to keep its doors open during the difficult financial times that we have experienced during some of those years. And, in all that time, we have never cut programming because of economic reasons. In fact, AMCS has increased its programming throughout the years, doubling the size of the intern program, expanding services to local schools and increasing the psychiatry program to serve more clients in need.

Q.  If you wanted to make an appointment to seek services at AMCS, what is the procedure?

A. The first step is to contact us at (310) 670-1410 and tell the front office receptionist that you are interested in services. If a therapist is available when you call, you will be transferred and asked some initial questions to determine if AMCS can meet your needs and assist with your presenting problem. If a therapist is not available, you will receive a call later that day or the next day at the latest. An appointment for an “initial consultation” is then scheduled. After your initial consultation, the turnaround time to therapist assignment is about two weeks.

Q. Does AMCS offer services for both people with mental illnesses and for people who are going through stressful life situations that are looking to talk to someone?

A. Absolutely! We not only treat serious mental disorders, but also treat people with varying degrees of depression, anxiety and stress. We also see clients who are going through particularly difficult periods in their lives, as well as clients who feel that they don’t have a particular problem, but want to enhance their mental health and emotional well-being.

Q. AMCS is now offering a lot of group classes. How do those differ from individual therapy? What are some of the most popular groups?

A. Individual therapy is one-on-one where a treatment plan is tailored for a specific individual. Group therapy helps clients see that they share similar experiences and feelings with others and that they are not alone. Research shows that group therapy can be just as effective as individual therapy and is usually more economical. AMCS often develops groups according to the community’s needs. Currently, the most popular groups running at AMCS include the “Women’s Support Group” and “The Reclaim Yourself in Times of Change Group,” which is based on Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.

Q.  What is some of the work that AMCS does in the local schools?

A. AMCS provides free services at Wright STEAM Middle School and Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnets. The services we offer include individual, family and group therapy. We provide treatment during school hours and afterschool. Parents and school personnel alike are thrilled to have us on site.

Q. Although mental health has come a long way, there still is a stigma attached to mental illness. How are organizations like AMCS helping combat this?

A. We are asked to speak at many community groups about our organization and that gives us the opportunity to positively reinforce the benefits of therapy as a treatment for mental illness. We also provide psycho-education, in any venue where we are invited, to help people understand that therapy is not just for those with serious mental illness. The fact that we have community partnerships such as those with local schools, the Boys and Girls Club of Venice and the YMCA shows that our services are easily accessible and part of everyday life. All of this helps combat this stigma.

Q. Are there any common misconceptions about AMCS?

A. There are, and they include the perception that we only serve the seriously mentally ill, which is not the case. Another misconception is that our therapists, because they are in training, may not be as effective. Airport Marina Counseling Service takes the training of mental health therapists very seriously because it is part of our mission. Our therapists are in school obtaining advanced degrees in psychology or have finished school and are accruing their hours toward licensure. AMCS provides each therapist with weekly supervision by a licensed clinician; that means that our clients actually get two therapists for the price of one! Our therapists must also complete a Step by Step Introduction to Therapeutic Techniques course, which is an experiential class designed to deepen the understanding and implementation of therapeutic techniques. And finally, our therapists are also required to attend twice-monthly trainings on a variety of mental health topics.

Q. How is AMCS involved in the community?

A. AMCS is part of several collaborations with different organizations in the community.  AMCS is part of the Silver Seminar Series, which provides monthly seminars for seniors on a variety of topics. We also partner with local schools and the Boys and Girls Club of Venice providing free mental health services on site. When a need is identified, AMCS is willing to begin a group or do a seminar or training about a specific mental health issue affecting the community. For example, AMCS provided a free group from November through January of this year titled “Happy Holidays: A Support Group for Stressful Times.” We provided this group as a community service, free of charge after the need was identified. AMCS is also part of the Neighborhood Council of Westchester/Playa’s Senior Committee where we recently put together a fair for the Sandwich Generation, the generation whose members are taking care of their own children, while also caring for their aging parents.

Q. How can people get involved with AMCS?

A. People can get involved in a variety of ways. We would be delighted to have more guests attend our fundraisers. AMCS does not receive any government funding and sustains itself through grants, donations, fundraisers and clients fees. Others may want to learn more about board member requirements and possibly join the AMCS Board of Directors. AMCS also has a sister organization, The Westchester Mental Health Guild. Volunteers are always needed to help at their events, where all proceeds go directly to AMCS. Attending Guild events and shopping at The Guilded Cage Gift Shop in Westchester are excellent ways to be involved without a big time commitment.

To learn more about AMCS and its services, please visit their website at

Pictured: AMCS Executive Director (second from left) discusses the Spring into Well-Being event with AMCS staff, including Clinical Director Diana Hoffman (second from right).   

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