Local experts discuss mental health amid COVID

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The Yolo County Foundation (YCF) focused on mental health in Yolo County during the pandemic in its third of five community panel discussions on Mar. 11.

Jessica Hubbard, YCF executive director, assembled a panel of experts to tackle how COVID-19 has affected mental health in Yolo County. Petrea Marchand, board member of the Yolo County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health, acted as the panel’s moderator. Panel experts included Dr. Urmi Patel, director of clinical care at Sutter Health, Diane Sommers, executive director of Suicide Prevention of Yolo County and Dr. Tico Zendejas, executive director of RISE, Inc.

Marchand opened the discussion with a general distinction between two categories of mental illness: serious and situational. Serious mental illness, as defined in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” includes bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Situational mental illness conditions are caused by life events, such as a death in the family or the impact of COVID.

Marchand said Yolo County residents living with these types of mental illness needed services before COVID, but due to the impact of COVID, the need now is more urgent than ever.

Patel raised the top needs as: housing/transportation, sufficient resources, and law enforcement/first responders’ ability to deal with crises interventions. She voiced that the chain of services needs to be complete to effectively treat residents.

Zenejas said RISE focuses on lower to moderate mental health illnesses and cited access, outreach and education as most important to RISE’s demographics. He said they serve mostly rural areas within the county, and developing relationships that build trust is key to their community outreach efforts.

Sommers said that suicide is the leading cause of death for persons between the ages of 10 and 24; in 2018 the national suicide rate for this age category increased over 57 percent.

“(Mental health) problems we’ve seen in the past were exaggerated and increased by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sommers while discussing the nearly 100 percent increase in monthly crisis hotline calls during the pandemic.

Their suicide hotline registered 781 calls in January and 734 in February. Sommers said about 20 percent of these calls were for serious mental health issues, and emphasized the need to get children back into schools.

Panelists agreed that isolation due to COVID and the difficulty of performing in-person services and outreach have hampered their efforts.

While ‘shelter in place’ was in effect, access moved toward other methods of delivering services. Telehealth was said to be working and is expected to remain a valuable health care tool. Telehealth is the delivery of health care, education and information via remote and digital technologies.

Zenejas has not seen a sharp rise in telehealth use in his communities because they continue to offer some in-person services. RISE has some dedicated resources — like a 20 hour per week senior coordinator — but said 20 hours is still not enough.

Panelists discussed developing effective partnerships to address community needs by way of support groups, partnerships, knowledge sharing, maintaining a resource guide, coordinating outreach and education, utilizing volunteers and leveraging funding.

Sommers mentioned — and panelists agreed — that a shared resource list should be up to date so patients aren’t referred to defunct resources.

Challenges raised included shortages of hospital beds for serious mental health issues, how to effectively deal with crises intervention, providing patient transportation and using innovation to overcome challenges.

The panelists identified the following specific opportunities:

Opportunities to help individuals living with serious mental illness:

  • Development of additional permanently-supported housing, (e.g. adult residential facilities with 24/7 care)
  • Additional hospital beds in Yolo County for treatment of mental health crises
  • Additional case management services to assist with medical appointments and other services
  • Improved access to transportation, such as a contract with transportation network companies (e.g. Uber, Lyft), to ensure access to services

Opportunities to help individuals living with situational mental health conditions:

  • Increased outreach and development of community relationships to reduce stigma and build trust in existing mental health services
  • Improved use of technology, including smartphone applications, to connect patients to a growing range of treatment options
  • Development of clinics in rural communities, such as the new Esparto community center and medical facility being built in partnership between RISE Inc., Winters Healthcare Foundation, and Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation
  • Improved partnerships with K-12 schools to provide access to evidence-based programs, clinicians and educational presentations
  • Outreach to seniors to increase connection and help with access to services in partnership with local nonprofits, such as the Healthy Aging Alliance
  • Workplace support for front-line workers during the pandemic

The next panel discussion is scheduled for March 18 and will focus on “Housing Insecurity.” The final panel discussion of the series is entitled, “What’s Next: A Look to Recover” and is scheduled for March 25.

Panel discussions are held via Zoom. Online registration is free and can be completed on the YCF website at yolocf.org. Prior and future panel discussion videos are also available on the YCF website under “COVID Panel Series.”

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