Mandel Lifted Pacific Clinics to New Heights

It was 1964 when the Dodge automobile company released an ad campaign based around “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” The popular commercials featured a white-haired old woman speeding down the street in her Dodge before stopping to promote the vehicle. Later that year, the California surf music duo Jan and Dean released a song called “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.” Her regional folk-hero status grew, and the character continued to appear in advertisements even after the original actress died in 1969.
When Susan Mandel moved to the area in 1980 to take a job as the president of a mental health nonprofit focused on children, she immediately thought of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.”
“Unfortunately, there were no services for the little old ladies in Pasadena and there were a lot of them,” said Mandel. “One of the first things we did was to try to get some older adult services.”
Not only was Mandel able to carry out that vision, Pacific Clinics has since become one of the leading mental health care providers in Southern California under her stewardship, offering a robust array of services to the diverse populations that comprise Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.
This past spring, Mandel retired from her post after 36 years leading Pacific Clinics to new heights as an agency.
“The organization was very good to me and allowed me to have a career that I’m proud of,” the psychologist and behavioral health executive said earlier this month. “I’m very grateful.”
The scope of Pacific Clinics ranges from prevention and early intervention to recovery and wellness maintenance, including treatment programs for those dealing with substance abuse to mental health disorders. Pacific Clinics cares for young children all the way up to the elderly, along with their families.
Mandel played a large role in expanding the organization’s commitment to Southern California’s multicultural communities. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Asian Pacific Family Center, the 20th anniversary of the Hye-Wrap Armenian program and the 15th anniversary of the Latino Suicide Prevention Program.
“I don’t think there’s another Susan Mandel,” said Gladys Lee, former director of the Asian Pacific Family Center from 1986-1999. “She is the mother of the community mental health movement in California.”
Mandel may have never even received the opportunity to enact such change, but her old boss took a serendipitous sick day back in 1979. At the time, Mandel was the mental health director for Alameda County in Northern California. Proposition 13 had recently changed property taxes and limited the amount of money going into the public sector, forcing a frustrated Mandel to cut back services in the community. While sorting through mail for her boss that day, she noticed an ad for a high-level opening at the Pasadena Child Guidance Clinic. After four trips down the coast for interviews, Mandel eventually landed the president’s role and began transforming the organization into what is now Pacific Clinics.
“To me, it was a great opportunity to get away from public sector oversight,” she said. “When you work for the public sector, sometimes you have to go out and face the public and tell them something and you haven’t really decided that. Somebody else has. When you work for a nonprofit, you make your own mistakes; you make your own successes. If you’re fortunate to have a good board of directors, they stand behind you. That’s what I’ve had for 36 years.”
One of those board members is May Farr. The longtime supporter of Pacific Clinics likened Mandel’s retirement to losing an arm, illustrating the impact she has had on the agency throughout the decades.
“She brought that organization from infancy all the way up,” said Farr. “It’s become such an important part of mental health. She’s such a visionary. You just don’t find people like that all the time.”
Mandel’s guidance also allowed Pacific Clinics to usher in a Nurse Practitioner Training Program, the first of its kind. With the number of people entering primary care psychiatry on the decline in recent years, Mandel sought a way to bridge the gaps between mental and physical health.
“Medication is a wonderful thing. It does help a lot of people with mental illness,” she said. “If you don’t have a psychiatrist, you can’t prescribe it. But nurse practitioners are trained to work with psychiatrists to do that.
“I wanted to have more nurse practitioners to manage and help understand the physical health issues — diabetes, heart disease, obesity — many of which happen to people with mental illness.”
Replacing Mandel as president and CEO of Pacific Clinics is Jim Balla, who served as the organization’s executive vice president for the past nine years. The Board of Directors pegged Balla for the job because of his more than 20 years of experience and leadership in the behavioral health sector. While Balla admitted that it’s impossible to duplicate Mandel’s profound influence on Pacific Clinics, he believes that the foundation she laid imparts a bright future for the agency.
“What she’s done throughout her career is honestly establish a high standard of excellence and performance serving the mentally ill,” Balla said. “Our legacy now is to continue that. Services will transform. I think what Susan’s done is help to position the agency for integrated care. Everything now is treating the whole person. It’s so important to bring the physical health with the behavioral health. … It’s a challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity.”
Mandel, meanwhile, plans to take advantage of the opportunities that retirement presents. Since she officially stepped down from her post at the end of March, there has been more time to play golf, cook and read. Of course, Mandel is never too far away from Pacific Clinics and makes herself available when the organization seeks advice or suggestions on the ever-changing world of mental health care.
“I think the issue of stigma is getting better,” she said. “People are more willing to accept services and seek services. I think we need to continue that education among all age groups and all communities so that people don’t suffer needlessly when there is help available.”

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