.The Mental Health Talk— Mental Health Discussions are Open for Good

The Pandemic’s impact isn’t purely physical—nothing exists in a vacuum. The interconnectedness of our physicality with our mental and spiritual states has made itself evident during the last two years, when isolation, sickness and fear produced enough anxiety, depression and paranoia to bring mental health to a state of criticality, completely changing the way we engage with it as a society.

In the midst of this ongoing crisis and societal transformation, Millennials and Gen Z—along with open-minded thinkers from every generation, many of whom have long advocated for mental health transparency and have paved the way for this sort of action—have made it overtly clear that we’re no longer interested in existing in states of repression, when mental health is a fundamental and valuable facet of the human experience. In their professions, social media presences and everyday lives, Californians are vocalizing and advocating for their mental health more than ever before.

City health boards are stepping up as well. Marin County, a county with one of the highest suicide death rates in the State of California and the fourth highest in youth suicides—including Marin and non-Marin residents, as the Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most popular suicide destination spots in the world—has a program, now two years in operation, called the Marin County Suicide Prevention Strategic Plan, where strategies are set in place to recognize suicidal warning signs and to provide support to those experiencing and struggling with suicidal ideation. This program is the result of Marin County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services assembling a Suicide Prevention Strategic Planning committee comprised of doctors, mental health workers and experts, leaders of social services agencies, school administrators and instructors, representatives from marginalized communities and those who have experienced suicide either through surviving an attempt or by losing a loved one. Through webinars, online forums, hotline support, suicide-prevention events and an ever-evolving source of information and action—available in full at marinhhs.org/suicide-prevention—Marin County is addressing the need to change the conversation around mental health. In August of 2020, Marin County launched the Suicide Prevention Collaborative, designed to continue enacting the strategies outlined in the SPSP.

As covered by journalist Keri Brenner for the Marin Independent Journal, the suicide rates in Marin County have decreased since the unveiling of SPSP, with a reported 31 deaths by suicide in Marin County residents in 2020, down from 46 in 2019, along with a 28% rise in calls to the county’s mobile crisis team and an 89% increase in follow-up calls and visits from the mobile response unit. Overall deaths by suicide—including non-Marin residents—have also decreased, which Dr. Jei Africa, director of Marin County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, says could be in response to the installation of the Suicide Deterrent System at the Golden Gate Bridge—a net placed 20 feet below and reaching 20 feet out from the railing. The decrease in numbers is reflected both in Marin and non-Marin resident suicide rates.

In the same article Kara Connors, senior coordinator for the plan, said the pandemic, by forcibly isolating people for a year, might ultimately end up being a healing tool in that it has highlighted the importance of connection in the lives of Marin residents. It may seem backwards, but going without our everyday interaction for so long has not only spotlighted the value of our interconnected daily lives, but the role each and every one of us plays in that interconnectedness, and how much help we can really give in supporting one another and opening a healthy dialogue around mental-health issues.

In Sonoma County, mental health response is also kicking up a notch. On Tuesday, Jan. 11, the ribbon-cutting ceremony took place for the City of Santa Rosa’s new response team, inRESPONSE, a mental health support team designed to respond to emergency calls with a mental health approach first. The team is comprised of a licensed mental health clinician, a paramedic and a homeless-outreach specialist, and supported by a wrap-around support-services provider. Trained in de-escalation and social-work interventions as well as physical- and mental-health evaluations, inRESPONSE is a long-overdue team of trained health care providers who will ensure that people experiencing critical mental health episodes, homelessness, poverty or any other issue not fitting a criminal profile are met with help, without risk of being harmed by police.

This unit will respond first to a call regarding a mental health crisis where no weapon is involved. If a weapon is present, an SRPD officer will be dispatched first, but will transition service to the inRESPONSE team once the situation is deemed safe. InRESPONSE will also partner with the city’s Homeless Outreach Services Team to identify unsheltered community members who may be experiencing a mental health crisis. For the time being, InRESPONSE consists of a single team running 10-hour shifts, seven days a week. In a three-year plan, the SRPD seeks the funding and resources necessary to provide 24/7 mental health response teams through grants, and federal and private funding. InResponse can be called during an active-suicide crisis, a psychotic break, by families in need of mental health support services, to request non-emergency medical evaluations and checks, and more.

Though the program is nascent, and augmentation, further funding and adjustments will inevitably be required, this is an outstanding development in Santa Rosa’s city history. Since the death of Jeremiah Chass in 2007, members of the county have rightfully been afraid to call police in the event of a psychotic episode of a family member, neighbor or even a stranger, fearing a violent outcome. inResponse, the appropriate response team to a mental health crisis call, was built with support and guidance from Sonoma County Behavioral Health, a branch of which is the Sonoma County Mental Health Board.

This past weekend I spoke with Sonoma County Mental Health Board member Michael Johnson, who has experienced acute mental health issues firsthand, in order to hear his thoughts on Sonoma County mental health treatment and resources in the wake of Covid. It was an enlightening and inspiring conversation. Michael talked about being 5150’d—this is an involuntary 72-hour hold on someone experiencing a psychiatric episode—the incredible strides he was able to make as a result of having love and community around him, and, most strikingly, he talked about the power of grief to positively change our lives. “It’s great,” he said, “to see the progress that mental health resources have made in the last two years. The thing is that the resources are there, but we’ve been so uncomfortable talking about mental health in an open way. Asking for help, telling friends and family when we’re not okay, without feeling shame. I don’t like the phrase ‘feeling bad,’ because it somehow implies that what we’re feeling is wrong, but that’s not the case. Sadness, depression, grief—these are all important parts of the human experience. It’s about supporting each other and ourselves through them.”

Johnson and I discussed a phase of grief he refers to as transformative—the idea that, after anger, denial, bargaining and all the other stages of resistance, we allow ourselves to fully accept and feel the pain within us and then move to a place of transformation, where that pain becomes a catalyst for growth, making us stronger, more open and more in touch with each other. He spoke openly and gracefully about his experiences, saying, “That my story can help someone else, that’s the point.”

The Sonoma County Mental Health Board holds two meetings a month; one on the first Tuesday, with the Mental Health Board; the other on the first Wednesday, with the Mental Health Executive Committee. These meetings are open to the community, and review—in detail—the community’s mental health needs, facilities, services and struggles on an ongoing basis. The Marin County Mental Health Board meets once a month to review the state of the community’s mental health and advise accordingly; its meetings are also open to the public. The Marin County Suicide Prevention Collaborative meets on the first Wednesday of every month at 2pm and is open to the public.

These events need community involvement to continue improving. Steps like inResponse and the Suicide Prevention Collaborative show that we’ve made major strides. Let’s keep going, opening the discussion around suicide and mental health issues and bringing them to the foreground without shame or fear. These are not shameful or fearful circumstances, and they don’t need to be hidden. Help is available.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800.273.8255
Marin Crisis Text Line: Text MARIN to 741741
Sonoma County’s 24-hour Emergency Mental Health Hotline: 800.746.8181

Jane Vick is a painter, writer and journalist who has spent time in Europe, New York and New Mexico. She is currently based in Sonoma County. View her work at janevick.com.

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