Rise in mental health crises among Sonoma County youth a growing concern
The toll of physical isolation and an unprecedented disruption of daily life has led to an increase in mental health emergencies among young people in Sonoma County, and experts are hoping greater awareness about the signs can lead to early detection and treatment.
Police departments, hospitals and public and nonprofit service providers have seen an uptick in local teens and adolescents experiencing a crisis, a reality county officials say has strained the resources of some response programs.
More than 7 out of 10 of 4,500 Sonoma County high school students who participated in a national survey by nonprofit YouthTruth feel anxious about the future, which was the No. 1 factor in academic struggles.
The increased stress of the pandemic and tendency to “doom scroll” on social media is compounding risk factors for younger generations, who already were experiencing higher instances of mental or behavioral disorders.
Mary-Frances Walsh, executive director National Alliance on Mental Illness of Sonoma County, said the despair and concern adults experience are also challenging young people — only they haven’t necessarily developed the coping mechanisms to respond.
“They don’t have the life experience most adults do to recognize this, too, shall pass,” Walsh said. “Their feelings become really poignant and move on to feelings of despair. They’re not connecting with peers they normally would in school. They’re feeling all those missed connections in their normal, social development.”
Mental health resources have been a casualty of Sonoma County budget cuts in recent years, and officials expect new funding — thanks to the passage this month of Measure O, a quarter-cent sales tax for 10 years — could help restore key programs.
The Crisis Assessment Prevention Education Team, or CAPE, responded to crises at schools countywide, and offered prevention services to students, teachers and parents. But the team was eliminated in a wave of budget cuts three years ago.
County behavioral health division director Bill Carter anticipates its return, with some modifications to “meet the moment.”
“It gets to children where they’re needed and gets to their support systems so you’re able to mobilize with them,” Carter said. “It’s been a big hole since elimination, and why it was established as a priority (for Measure O spending).”
Separately, a greater demand for the county crisis unit, which tries within 24 hours to stabilize someone experiencing a mental health emergency, has limited the capacity for teens and adolescents, Carter said.
If someone isn’t stabilized in the initial 24-hour window, they’re transferred to an in-patient health care center for as long as two weeks. If adult demand is greater, youth beds are often provided as backup, Carter said.
With availability often limited, more young people have been treated at hospitals during the pandemic, he said.
Many teens self-medicate with drugs, alcohol or cannabis in response, which can intensify the symptoms of mental illness. Halley Cloud, community health program manager with the Petaluma Health Care District, labored on a grant-funded campaign across the North Coast to try and make services and programs more readily available.
The product was the Find Your Way campaign, which was spread widely on social media and even billboards across Sonoma, Lake and Humboldt counties.
“The main theme is wanting this to be about more than drug use and not a ’Just say No’ campaign,” Cloud said. Students indicated in surveys they wanted “a more understanding campaign that touched on mental health because of how connected that is,” she said.
Key to increasing awareness is ending stigmas around seeking out services or support, said Walsh, head of Sonoma County’s mental illness alliance chapter. Nationally, there’s an 11-year gap from the first signs of mental illness and when someone gets treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The local mental illness alliance has converted its “End the Silence” initiative to Zoom presentations for middle and high school students, staff and parents, Walsh said. The organization also has continued to hold its family and individual support groups online.
“It’s important to allow young people to say they’re not OK and need help,” Walsh said. “As adults we can model that in our own behaviors. When we need respite or to turn off whatever is getting us down, tune into something that brings us joy.”
You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @YousefBaig.