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Mental health community networks for resources, response

Assistant Director of Student Health and Wellness/Mental Health Program and chair of The Santa Clarita Valley Suicide Prevention, Postvention and Wellness Committee, Larry Schallert, talks during a discussion among committee members from different agencies at College of the Canyons in Valencia in early 2018. Nikolas Samuels/The Signal

While social media can debate the best way to handle a pandemic, experts say the fact that COVID-19 is changing how we interact, and having a significant impact on mental health, is undeniable. 

The Sheriff’s Department’s Mental Evaluation Team has issued a report noting they were needed for 97 more calls that required a “5150 hold” this year compared to the previous year, and there was a 52% increase of such calls since the start of the MET program more than five years ago. (A 5150 hold is when a person is placed under an involuntary 72-hour hospitalization period for evaluation.)

And, the mental health experts who run the Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital Behavioral Health Unit, which helps Santa Clarita Valley residents in their most severe crises — and for example, cares for individuals on a psychiatric hold — is currently treating, on average, about twice as many patients as they usually see. 

But the issue is not just with those requiring inpatient care. A study by the Centers for Disease Control published Aug. 14 noted nearly 41% of respondents in the survey have at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, and disproportionately “adverse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and elevated suicidal ideation” were being experienced by younger adults, minorities, essential workers and unpaid adult caregivers. 

Widespread problem 

One of the biggest challenges is not just that handling a crisis can be much more difficult in the isolation of a pandemic for those who might already have a hard time dealing with a crisis — it’s that many more people, including those who might be willing to offer help, like caregivers — might be approaching their own crisis and not have the time to recognize it.

“We just know it in theory, and in anecdotal information … also from people we know, and from people we’re working with, that there’s a lot of people out there who are dealing with major personal issues, and these can include issues that they may have had, that are pre-existing to the COVID virus like (obsessive compulsive disorder) or bipolar,” said Larry Schallert, who leads the Suicide Prevention, Postvention and Wellness Committee, which meets inside the College of the Canyons Student Health Center, where Schallert is also assistant director. “But also domestic violence-type of problems, economic problems, people who’ve been traumatized or maybe had PTSD, people may feel like things have gotten worse.”

The groups offering help and support locally are seeing greater numbers, too.

“Bottom line: Yes, we are seeing similar results here in the SCV, and we are working to provide for those who are reaching out before yet another crisis,” said Debbie Rocha, founder of SRD-Straightening Reins, a local equine therapy nonprofit she founded after her teenage daughter Samantha Rocha-Dyer killed herself in 2011. 

Locally, partnerships have been critical in not only meeting a growing need, but also creating awareness and options for many people in crisis.

Partnering up 

“There definitely is a need, and we’ve noticed during COVID, you know depression and suicide attempts have increased, and so has our (number of patients),” said Christa McAuley, community education coordinator for the Behavioral Health Unit at Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital.

One of the bigger aims of the suicide-prevention committee supported by the city, college and agencies like the SCV Sheriff’s Station is that the groups that service the community are able to work together more effectively.

Next week, for example, McAuley is speaking with deputies during their regular briefing, in order to share information with deputies and to answer questions — at the invitation of Sheriff’s Station Capt. Justin Diez. McAuley mentioned the dialogue, which can benefit both the mental health and law enforcement communities, was a direct result of the committee.

The map above, courtesy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, reports the approximate locations of suicides reported over the past 18 months, which impact every part of the Santa Clarita Valley. 

Another committee byproduct is, which has helped network resources like SRD-Straightening Reins, the Child & Family Center and Henry Mayo Newhall Hospital, among others, in an online portal that also shares upcoming events, too. 

“SRD continues to see a growing need for additional youth services, ages 16-24 and their families here in the Santa Clarita Valley,” said Rocha, who deals primarily with a younger population. “We, too, have had an increase in calls seeking help for those unpaid caregivers that are diligently working to provide for their children and extended family members in this uncertain time. … Our weekly Saugus High Support group has resumed, and we have a waitlist for the next group of sessions.” 

Local impacts

The actual number of suicides in the SCV stayed the same for the first six months of 2019 vs. 2020, with 10 deaths attributed, according to data from the Sheriff’s Department. (The age-adjusted national suicide rate in 2018 was 14.2-per-100,000 individuals as of March 1, according to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website. Santa Clarita experienced 19 suicides with a population of approximately 290,000 in all of 2019.)

This actually still represents a significant drop from the 2018 calendar year, when 19 were reported, according to officials.

The popularity and growing number of resources create mixed feelings for the professionals, who also mentioned programs with the Child & Family Center and added that, at COC, any registered students are eligible for six to eight free counseling sessions, which could cost someone hundreds of dollars without insurance.

“It’s good and bad,” said McAuley, noting that while nobody wants to see their neighbor struggle, a positive is that there’s assistance available, and more people seem to be taking advantage. “At least, we’re helping more people.”

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