People suffering from a mental illness can be misunderstood or even mistreated at the hands of an incompetent caregiver, but not at UCI’s Psychiatry Outpatient Clinic. There, a team of administrative assistants makes sure they’re treated with dignity. Because of their commitment, they received the fall 2007 Living Our Values team award.

“This team of workers goes out of their way to treat all of our patients with respect, kindness, sensitivity to their special needs and compassion,” writes Norma Fischer, outpatient clinic supervisor, in her nomination letter. “(They) work with what can be a difficult patient population and make every patient feel cared for with individual attention. They understand this patient population’s needs and meet those needs in every possible way.”

The clinic, based in Orange and operated by UC Irvine School of Medicine’s psychiatry & human behavior department, handles 14,000 patient visits per year and has specialty clinics for schizophrenia, child psychiatry, developmental disorders and affective disorders.

“We see patients with a variety of mental illnesses, so it’s important that we get them to see their doctors and get their medications,” says Ric Ruelas, administrative assistant. “They can be difficult or even irrational. If they start yelling or they’re real anxious, I just keep a calm voice and bring them down to my level.”

To do the job effectively, he says, one can’t be thin-skinned or take the occasional verbal abuse from patients personally.

“You can’t be timid,” Ruelas says. “Sometimes you need to be a little assertive or authoritative, but in a nice way. There’s a time to be firm, and a time to let them get what they have to say off their chest.”

Jolene Arroyo, administrative assistant, agrees that a calm personality is crucial.

“One day they might come in acting really nice, and the next day they’ll be screaming. You need strong customer service skills to do this job,” she says.

Although the work is challenging, the team members – who also include Joann T. Trinh, Tara Finn, Thaddeus Barrow and Santiago Gomez – relieve stress by having fun. They have group lunches and holiday gatherings.

“We hang out together,” Arroyo says. “We’re like a family.”

They also share the satisfaction of knowing what they do is worthwhile.

“We’re helping people,” Ruelas says.