By the time she came to UCLA for graduate school, she wanted to learn more about how people respond to serious life challenges, such as illness or unexpected tragedy. Some experience depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, while others come away with a greater sense of purpose, strength and meaning.
“I was interested in the question of, ‘How do we help people move through a challenging life experience and support them such that they end up on the side of connection, sense of personal strength and meaningful experiences,” she says, “as opposed to the outcome of it being a devastating and traumatic experience.”
Dr. Cleary found a mentor in , chair of the Psychology department, whose research centers on coping with health-related adversities. For her master’s thesis and doctoral dissertation, Dr. Cleary studied what factors contribute to positive adjustment to cancer.
“It’s an incredible place to work. There is so much heart here,” says Dr. Cleary. “When the center was founded almost 30 years ago, the mission of providing psychosocial support in the cancer context was fairly new and radical. The center has been one of the places that has changed the norm and our understanding of what’s needed for individuals, caregivers and families when they experience cancer and its treatment.”
The Simms/Mann Center, part of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center and the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, offers holistic support for people with cancer, from individual counseling and support groups to nutrition education, meditation instruction, art therapy and qigong. These services are provided at no cost.
The center has grown tremendously in the past decade, expanding services to 21 locations across Southern California, along with an array of virtual programs hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“That's really expanded our ability to reach people — especially our population who's tired and already managing a lot of medical appointments,” Dr. Cleary says of the center’s digital programming. “So it's safer and it's easier to receive care.”
Now, workshops that previously drew a dozen people can reach 80 or more.
This expansion has coincided with an increased appreciation for the kinds of support the Simms/Mann Center provides, Dr. Cleary says.
“Psychosocial support has become much more the standard of care as opposed to a helpful add-on or supplementary resource,” she says. “We are seen as an integral, necessary and integrated part of the health care team.”
Grief and wholeness
Coping with cancer diagnosis and treatment is an emotional experience and grief is an inherent part of it, says Dr. Cleary, whose own life has been shaped by personal experiences with grief.
The year she graduated from college, she lost her mother to suicide.
“I was already dedicated to a career in psychology and mental health,” Dr. Cleary says. “But professionally, it has made me committed to the idea that caring for our mental health is of the utmost importance.”
Having personally experienced profound loss “makes me better able to sit with, to witness and to tend to other people's grief,” she says.
At Simms/Mann, Dr. Cleary helps patients and families with both grief and meaning-making.
“We’re not in the business of forcing silver linings,” she says. “But I think in any hard experience, there is meaning that we’re able to connect to, things that are meaningful to us that matter. … A big part of my own meaning-making about my mom’s death is through this work that I’m able to do, through tending to people’s grief and through ensuring mental health care and access.”
Embracing psychosocial care
During the decade she’s worked at the Simms/Mann Center, Dr. Cleary has seen patients embrace psychosocial care in a new way, tending to their emotional and psychological health as part of their overall wellness journey.
Many of them haven’t been in therapy before and never previously considered it. Some had ideas about who went to therapy and didn’t see themselves in that image.
“It's amazing to connect with those people and to help reduce some of the stigmas around mental health care by showing that (therapy) is ultimately two humans talking, connecting, and that it can be very effective,” Dr. Cleary says. “That’s an aspect of the job I’ve always really appreciated, and it’s deeply connected to Simms/Mann’s mission of providing care without cost or billing to patients, removing that barrier completely.”