An old man with a weathered face and bare feet ambled into the waiting room of the Southern California Counseling Center in Beverly Hills and looked curiously around at the patients waiting there. One of them turned to the newcomer and asked if he could help him. At that the old man smiled and said, “Thank you. I happen to be a doctor here.”
It is a story that Dr. Benjamin Weininger, cofounder of the pioneering Los Angeles mental health center, savors and retells often. It also typifies the style with which he conducts himself at the center—which the National Association for Mental Health has called “one of the most innovative mental health agencies in the country.”
Dr. Weininger started it in 1966 with the late psychologist Hans Hoffman to meet the overwhelming need for mental health services for the poor and non-rich in the Los Angeles area. From 400 to 600 people are treated there weekly by 150 paraprofessional counselors and 37 psychiatrists and psychologists. In 1973, the center, which is nonprofit and supported largely by donations, operated on a budget of $124,000. Clients’ fees ranged from nothing to $15 a week, with 74% paying less than $4.
The center, which has become a model for others in California, trains lay personnel to counsel its clients, using children as young as 9 and men and women as old as 80 to help people understand their problems and deal with them. Counselors come from all walks of life and have included actresses Jennifer Jones and Joan Darling, Laura Huxley (widow of the late author Aldous Huxley), nuns, firemen, lawyers, rabbis, writers and many housewives.
At 69, Dr. Weininger—known to most as “Dr. Ben”—appears to be the “flower child” of the psychiatric world. In a profession where members are among the most richly-rewarded fee-earners in the country, he has evinced a lifelong unconcern for wealth. Born of poor immigrant parents, he recalls, “It never entered my mind in medical school that the practice of medicine was something to earn money with.” His income comes primarily from approximately 20 hours devoted to private practices in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Twice divorced, he lives in Santa Barbara with his son David, 22, one of his four children.
Quick, lean and intense, Dr. Ben often slips inconspicuously into a group counseling session in his stocking feet and is as likely to hug a client as to shake his or her hand. In group therapy sessions, he is indistinguishable from the clients—until someone asks him a question. Then, pinioning the client with his gaze, he will launch into a discourse which may draw upon psychiatry books, the experience of 35 years in the profession, the wisdom of Hasidic scholars, the writings of Tolstoy or the lore of a witch doctor.
For the past two Christmas seasons Dr. Ben has manned a sidewalk booth in Los Angeles patterned after Lucy’s in the comic strip Peanuts. Weininger charged the same 50 per patient. “I did it partly to dramatize the importance of low-cost mental health service,” he says.
What will he do this year? “During the next Christmas season,” he says, “I plan to set up a ‘dialogue in the streets.’ We will do everything we do in the center—individual, group and family counseling—right on the street for whoever asks our help.”