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To call what is happening to so many Americans, so many San Diegans, so many of our children, one mental health crisis is not enough. We need new words to describe it – and new solutions too, because aid is too often elusive, ineffective, insufficient.
Calling something a crisis means we can’t agree on the solution, means we will fight for it. The label relegates the problem to a long list of unsolvable problems that are never solved because we lack the time, the money, the consensus, the commitment, the infill to make tough choices and stick with them. Everything is a crisis these days. Climate change. Accommodation. Energy. Immigration. You name it.
To call it a crisis means it’s just one more crisis – when it really is the root of so many societal problems.
We are all unraveling. We get lost. We say, “Help!” or find it hard to ask.
For three days last year, reporters followed patients, police, clinicians, dispatchers and those struggling to get help to create a minute-by-minute account of an overwhelmed system. Here’s a 72-hour look at the mental health crisis in San Diego County.
Chronic absenteeism is increasing locally and nationally as growing mental health issues have left far too many children falling behind and even out of school. Rising mental health issues have also left far too many adults in need of limited behavioral health beds, or sleeping on increasingly crowded city streets, or behind bars, where problems in the prisons of the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department can prove fatal.
One in 5 Americans will suffer from a mental illness in any given year, and 1 in 25 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. The pandemic shutdowns have brought more attention to our country’s mental health as more and more families have come closer to the issues that underlie some of our community’s most serious problems. Reports in this section reveal how mental health plays a significant role in overdoses, police shootings, incarceration, homelessness, student behavior problems, and suicide.
There is work to do.
Many of San Diego County’s 5,000 inmates, 8,000 homeless people, 185,000 public high school students and 3.1 million residents need help. The county’s 17,000 people working in behavioral health also need it. A recent survey of 1,600 county behavioral health workers revealed something startling: 44% may soon be looking for another job. They are overwhelmed and use words like “brutal” and “incredibly demoralizing” to describe their work.
So what would help?
Three things, experts agree: More workers. More facilities. More prevention.
Research by the San Diego Workforce Partnership shows the county needs 8,000 more workers, including people with mental illness who could be peer support specialists. Nursing homes, acute care centers and adult residences need hundreds of new units. Overall, the field needs a more preventative model to help people before they go to hospitals, institutions, shelters and prisons.
A big problem is that so much more help is needed than is provided. A range of people are doing the right job individually and collectively, with new momentum behind tools as varied as red flag laws, guardianship and non-police responses to 911. Last month, Governor Gavin Newsom spoke traveled to San Diego to propose a 2024 bond measure to raise billions of dollars to house and treat thousands of people with mental health issues. But help is still provided by underpaid and overstretched (and demoralized!) behavioral health workers, by police officers who are asked too much to do, by nonprofits with meager budgets, and by politicians who mean well but change offices and leave the hard work to the less experienced.
As a community we say keep up the good work, but we can’t keep up. The aforementioned experts don’t even know how much all this – more workers, more facilities and more prevention – will cost or when it will materialize. We fail.
Consider these details from the San Diego Union-Tribune’s 72-Hour Project, in which dozens of reporters spent a year analyzing the area’s mental health support system:
• San Diego County Psychiatric Crisis Response Teams were started in 1996 to help people with mental health issues. Today, the county funds 72 of these clinicians, but they are often not available when needed. Depending on the day, only about a third of them may be working.
• The County Behavioral Health Court was launched in 2009 to provide alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illnesses. Today, about 350 people have participated. Sixty-six people were on the program at the last count in October. Of the remaining 291, only 51% had completed the program.
• Mobile County Crisis Response Teams were launched in 2021. Today there are 35 teams.
All for a county population of 3.1 million.
After reading the San Diego Union-Tribune’s 72-Hour Draft, it’s clear that something has to happen. Soon. It is also clear that more work is needed. By all of us, but by the Union-Tribune itself. The 72 hour project is not the end of our work. It’s the beginning.
We are only beginning to look at this issue holistically, looking for solutions. Next, we are planning a series of in-depth public forums featuring people with expertise and experience in the mental health system. And we invite you to participate and help us prepare a variety of new solutions and collaborations. We want to organize three forums this year, in summer, fall and winter, in person and online. We will have more details soon. We hope the idea intrigues potential co-organizers and attendees, and we ask those interested to contact us with ideas on how we might join forces. For now, we are committed to convening these public forums to listen, learn and lead on this fundamental issue of our time and our region.
For all of us.
Bringing new attention to a massive issue, we’ll celebrate successful approaches that have helped others, highlight mistakes to avoid repeating them, and work to reduce stigma to allow for honest and inclusive conversation throughout the process. year.
If you are a current or former (or future!) behavioral health worker, we say thank you.
If you or your family are dealing with mental health issues, we say you are not alone.
To caregivers and those who need help, we say that we care about your mental health, that things can get better, and that we sincerely hope that you will seek new solutions with us.
We are interested in your personal stories, your ideas for panelists, and your thoughts on specific topics we should explore during these forums.
Please email our reporters today, tomorrow or throughout the year at email@example.com and help shape the conversation to come. And please watch this space for more information on the forums as we plan them.
We hope you will lend a hand.
We are in the same boat, and this is how we will try to get out of it.