Dr. Downey, a staff psychologist at San Quentin, is no stranger to overcoming obstacles in life.
“I fell behind in grade school because no one knew I was deaf,” Downey said. “It wasn’t till middle school that I got the resources that helped me adjust.”
Her hearing disability became something that gave her a distinct perspective.
“I like the silence because you can be with yourself, but there is a need for the chaos that is in the world,” she said. “Coping with the struggles is what helps mold us.”
There were times when Downey felt like no one understood her, which motivates her work now.
“I grew up struggling because I was deaf and no one knew what to do with me,” she said. “I want to help people understand that there is hope and resources to help them through whatever they’re struggling with.”
She learned sign language, started speech-therapy classes and got her left-ear hearing aid after graduating high school.
“I’m rewarded when my patients come back with a success story about how they were able to use the coping skills that we discovered through therapy”
Downey decided to become a psychologist because her disability barred her from joining the family lineage of civil and public servants such as law enforcement and military.
During college, she relied on sign language tutors and visual aids to help her stay on track with the classes.
“I had one professor that said he didn’t know how I would make it as a psychologist,” Downey said. “I was discouraged at first, but then I used that as a motivator.”
Two weeks into graduate studies, Downey got Ava, her first service dog and companion.
Ava is trained to alert Downey to environmental hazards and situational dangers that Downey would otherwise be unaware of.
“Ava went to school and everywhere with me,” Downey said. “When I graduated, she walked the stage with me.”
Downey later discovered a school that offers resources and support for deaf people, the California School of the Deaf , in Fremont, California.
There is a community of deaf people with a rich culture of theater, performing arts, and support groups.
“Obviously not everyone is affected in the same degree: some were born deaf, others went deaf, some can talk, and others have trouble communicating,” Downey said. “I went through seven years of speech therapy, and I still struggle daily because it’s a lot of work paying attention.”
“Most of the depictions of deaf people in the movies are just a narrow interpretation of reality,” Downey said. “No deaf person is as helpless as Hollywood makes them seem. I wanted to challenge that stereotype.”
Downey has been working at San Quentin since 2012.
She facilitates group therapy and conducts individual sessions to help as many people as possible.
Unlike social psychologists of the 1990s who promoted “positive illusions” as the means to maintaining mental health, Downey emphasizes the need for personal responsibility and the development of proper coping skills.
“I’m rewarded when my patients come back with a success story about how they were able to use the coping skills that we discovered through therapy,” Downey said. “Mental health is about personal growth and adapting to life’s challenges.”
Downey’s patients first learn to adjust to Ava’s presence.
“I didn’t know how people would respond to Ava when we first came in,” she said. “Some guys thought that she was a narc dog when they first saw her in the prison.”
Ava just celebrated a milestone, her 13th birthday.
“She’s retired now but still very active in my life,” Downey said. “She has arthritis in her left hip and her right leg is overcompensating, so our walks aren’t as long.”
Downey is expecting to retrieve her new service dog, Cinder, this autumn from a prison training program in another state.
“I’ve adjusted to life without my hearing because I’ve learned how to utilize the resources that are available,” she said. “I want to help my patients realize that there are resources and help for them as well.”
If you think you could benefit from Mental Health services, please fill out a medical slip requesting assistance or contact a community mental health clinic.