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Crisis Care: The new mental institutions

Sonoma County has a chronic shortage of psychiatric hospital beds. As as a result, a growing number of mentally ill residents are ending up in local emergency rooms and in the jail system. A four-part series, run on four consecutive Sundays, examines the causes and ramifications of the current state of the county’s mental health system, and the people who are impacted the most.

Aug. 6 — Hospitals: The closure of two psychiatric hospitals in Sonoma County has left a gaping hole.

Aug. 13 — Jail: The Sonoma County Jail has become the largest psychiatric treatment facility in the county.

Aug. 20 — Solutions: Sonoma County explores ways to improve services to people suffering from severe mental illness.

Aug. 27 — Your response: Readers share their stories about Sonoma County's mental health system.

Ongoing coverage: www.pressdemocrat.com/crisiscare

Share your story

We want to hear about your experience with local psychiatric emergency services. What do you do when you or a loved one faces a mental health crisis? Have you or a loved one sat in a hospital bed waiting to be transferred to an out-of-county psychiatric hospital or other mental health facility? Have you or a loved one received psychiatric services in the Sonoma County Jail’s mental health unit? Please send a brief account of your experience to Martin Espinoza at martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.

A sampling of reader response to The Press Democrat's "Crisis Care" series examining the mental health system in Sonoma County:

Thankful for story

EDITOR: As the father of a young adult child with significant psychiatric and developmental issues, I can only stand up and applaud the incredible cover story in Sunday’s Press Democrat regarding local efforts to cope with the burgeoning mental health care crisis (“Crisis care: ERs take brunt in psychiatric shortfall,” Aug. 6). The overall result is a comprehensive look, from both a practical and personal perspective, at a problem that is as complex as it is acute.

My daughter has been in the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital emergency room several times, as well as stays at Behavioral Health facilities. Considering the article’s depth, I can only add my voice from a lifelong journey with her beginning in Los Angeles 25 years ago.

While the strain on emergency rooms and service sectors is the tipping point, I would add that the people performing those services — nurses, case managers, service coordinators and doctors — are more dedicated and capable than any I have ever encountered. These professionals are as much in need of our collective support as the clients they care for.

It is also important to recognize Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane for the leadership role she has shouldered in pressing the case for adequate mental health care at a legislative level. This issue speaks to the heart of who we are as a community.

— JOHN BRODEY, Santa Rosa


Major health crisis

EDITOR: I often write to thank your newspaper for your consistent coverage of the homelessness crisis and mental health issues. But after your Sunday pieces on the severe state of affairs with mental health care in Sonoma County, I must extend a special thanks. These articles — which profile the complicated legal status of opening and maintaining psychiatric hospitals accepting low-income people and which also show in stark statistics how our jails are filled with the mentally ill as psychiatric units and community mental health supportive units dwindle — hit home.

They highlight a major public health emergency in this county — and in the United States, as well.

What’s needed is more openness about these issues as well as advocacy, public policy and funding that supports more housing and more health care. Your focused and consistent coverage contributes greatly to this cause.

Some may not think these issues concern them, but 20 percent of Americans suffer from mental illness, and severe psychiatric crises impact hospital emergency rooms and the safety of other people.

Of course there are the moral and ethical failures in letting these severely ill people decline — sometimes fatally — right in front of us.



Mental health solutions

EDITOR: Thank you for highlighting the many creative solutions that Sonoma County Behavioral Health is implementing in collaboration with its community partners to address the needs of residents living with serious mental illness.

Buckelew Programs is fortunate to be a key partner in these efforts. We have contracted with Sonoma County Behavioral Health since 1999 to offer housing, job training and mental health rehabilitation services, including specialized supports for transition-age youth, those referred through the criminal justice system and the chronically homeless.

With critical funding from the Mental Health Services Act (Proposition 63), the county was able to expand our services to develop the innovative Family Service Coordination Program. For the past 10 years, these free services have helped thousands of Sonoma County families navigate the often complex health system, learn about mental illness and how to be there for their loved ones while building their own resilience and support network.

While there’s still much to be done, we are grateful to be part of the solution by empowering people with behavioral health challenges, assisting those who love them and strengthening our community in the process.

— TAMARA PLAYER, CEO, Buckelew Programs


Mental health coverage

EDITOR: Thanks for your stellar coverage of the state of mental health care in Sonoma County. I appreciate your newspaper’s continued focus on the intractable and complicated issues of poverty, homelessness and mental illness.

I especially valued your first-person accounts from people with mental health issues and family members as well (“Families, patients share stories,” Aug. 27). These people are brave for speaking from the heart about their struggles with these diseases — made all the more devastating by the lack of services and sufficient health care facilities and resources here. I grew up with a mother who had schizoaffective disorder and know that feeling alone and stigmatized, as well as having little knowledge about mental illness or available resources, made our experience tough to survive.

But survive we did, and I salute those who shared their experiences, especially specific details about what was and wasn’t helpful to them in their stories of recovery (and, tragically, of not recovering). We can’t take for granted the urgent need for emergency care beds, longer-term care units, education and advocacy and a strong support network of family and friends and routine talk therapy and exercise.

Please continue to publish stories like these (and include contact information for crisis and emergency lines. NAMI — www.nami.org — is helpful in connecting with education and resources).



Bias against men

EDITOR: On Aug. 13, Staff Writer Martin Espinoza reported that nearly 40 percent of the 1,100 inmates held at the county’s jail have some form of mental health issue and that 30 inmates of this sub-group aren’t competent to stand trial (“Jail cells substituting for psychiatric beds,” Aug. 13). I emailed him to ask why he didn’t do a gender breakdown. He declined to directly answer the question.

Why? Because doing so would violate The Press Democrat’s ideological and systemic bias that men are privileged and women are oppressed. Sure enough, 77.9 percent of inmates who have some form of mental health issue are men, and 77.8 percent of inmates incompetent to stand trial are men.

This censorship would never happen if the tables were turned and it was primarily women who were denied mental health services until they were incarcerated. In fact, there would be numerous gender-specific articles on the plight of women who are discriminated against in this area, as there should be.

I invite Espinoza and his colleagues to attend a documentary film on the men’s rights movement entitled “The Red Pill,” which will be screened at the Boulevard Cinemas in Petaluma on Sept. 19.

— JOE MANTHEY, Petaluma


Inmates and mental health

EDITOR: Joe Manthey accused your paper of being biased against men because you failed to report that about 78 percent of inmates needing mental health services are men (“Biased against men,” Letters, Monday). The Sonoma County Criminal Justice System Master Plan of 2015 shows that 85 percent of inmates are men.

If Manthey had used just a smidgen of math logic, he would have seen that men in the county jail have a lower rate of mental health issues than women inmates.

It remains a moral outrage that 40 percent of inmates need mental health services. We’ve chosen as a society to turn public safety officers into the front-line workers with people who should have been treated rather than jailed.

— CHRIS ANDEREGG, Sebastopol