Working as a middle-school counselor in Marin, Marjorie Swig witnessed the anxiety and helplessness some of her young students were facing. So she came up with a simple concept: free and confidential mental health care for the youth of Northern California.
“I’ve had fourth-graders tell me they want to commit suicide,” Swig, 60, said in a phone interview. “They don’t feel like there is anyone they can talk to that feels safe and private. There is a real sense of helplessness among most of my students.”
And then, in 2009, Swig attended the funeral of a friend’s son who had committed suicide.
“The thing I heard over and over was, ‘I wish I could talk to someone that my mother didn’t also get to talk to.’ It came to me immediately — that this is it, I’m opening a clinic,” Swig said. “We’re not going to have these happen anymore.”
On Sept. 14, Swig opened the doors to Greenlight Clinic, a free mental health facility in San Francisco’s Presidio that serves people between the ages of 14 and 25.
“We decided to start at 14 because it is usually a time of anxiety and turmoil in the life of a person, and it’s also right about when people start getting a sense of agency and are most likely to seek out therapeutic help,” said Madeline Ehrlich, 24, Swig’s daughter and a volunteer at Greenlight.
The clinic currently offers free 50-minute sessions for six months, referrals to low-fee area clinics and continuing “booster” sessions to ensure patients’ long-term stability and safety. No referral, diagnosis or insurance is necessary — the only requirement is that the patient must be the one to contact the clinic.
“We’re offering this service to kids, and we want to make sure that it’s really the kids who want to be here — not the parents,” Swig said.
The clinic relies on the generosity of licensed therapists, interns and a board of directors who volunteer their time and skills to provide the free service. The rest of the clinic’s costs are covered by private funding that will last for about one year of operations, Swig said.
“We were lucky, because now we can be part of the community and hopefully then the community will want to be a part of us,” she said. “We were lucky to be privately funded, but I don’t want it to come across as something that happened easily. I’ve worked incredibly hard on this clinic, we all have.”
Swig said she hopes Greenlight will become a vital community space for transitional-age youth throughout Northern California. Her goal is for the clinic to eventually provide group therapy meetings alongside the individualized sessions. In a promotional flyer, topics that might be addressed by group therapy meetings include “friendship, parent and family relationships, personal relationships and anger management.”
“We have five patient rooms and a big group room, just waiting to be filled by the community,” she said. “We’re located close to Marin and right along many bus routes. I couldn’t be happier about how accessible our location is.”
Opening a mental health clinic wasn’t always something Swig — the daughter of San Francisco philanthropists Roselyne and the late Richard Swig — thought she would do.
“I became a marriage and family therapist because of a dare,” recalls Swig, who began her professional life briefly in public relations and then focused her energy on motherhood and volunteering. “Someone who knew me well told me I’d be a great therapist and dared me to apply. So I did.”
At 45, Swig returned to school to become a licensed marriage and family therapist — a journey that spread over 13 years as Swig balanced being a single mother to three children with a full course load and then the 3,000 hours necessary to become eligible for her licensing exam.
“I worked as an intern for a long time, because I was so fearful of the licensing exam. But when I decided to do the clinic, I was motivated to complete the exams,” she said.
In December 2014, Swig passed the exam. Two months later, Greenlight was born as a nonprofit organization and Swig had her first board meeting. All decisions are made collaboratively by Swig, Ehrlich and the seven board members — including three active therapists and two people with backgrounds in business and finance.
“The most important part of this whole process has been working with my board — seven people who I really trust, who have all kinds of professional experience. Together we have built this clinic,” said Swig. “Not one person is being paid. It really is a labor of love.”
Though the doors of the clinic have opened at 1808 Wedemeyer St., a block north of Lake Street, filling the five patient rooms has proven to be a tough process.
“We’ve gone door by door up and down the entire Bay Area trying to spread the word. But it’s hard to get in touch with the kids directly,” said Swig, who has an open house set at Greenlight on Nov. 13 and is planning trips to classrooms and temples.
“It’s really important that we get the word out there, to the kids. That this space exists and that it exists for them,” she said.
“Ever since I can remember, my mother has talked about opening a free clinic,” Ehrlich said. “It’s exciting to watch her be so independent and proactive, and to really build out her vision for how to best help others.”
For an appointment or more information, contact Greenlight Clinic at www.greenlightclinic.org or (415) 742-4306.