Sonoma County supervisors hear of local mental health crisis at community forum in Santa Rosa

Some 250 people came together in a first-of-its-kind forum in which behavioral health staff from the county and local nonprofits discussed mental health challenges facing the community.|

On a Sunday morning this past March, Kathleen Connolly of Fountaingrove found her 32-year-old son Patrick Connolly in his room, “cold and stiff,” with orange foam on his lips, the telltale sign of a fatal fentanyl overdose, she said.

Just two days earlier, on March 3, Patrick, who was diagnosed as schizoaffective with severe depression, had been seen at the county’s Crisis Stabilization Unit, a sort of psychiatric emergency department. He was released the next day, she said.

During previous visits, she said a staff person at the unit, located in southwest Santa Rosa, told her there was not much they could do for him because, “He’s more of a drug addict than mentally ill.”

He got better treatment in the Sonoma County Jail, she said, adding that he got his first diagnosis there more than a decade ago.

“They always put him in the (jail’s) mental health ward,” she said. “That’s where he was safe.”

Connolly relayed her story during an all-day community forum on mental health Tuesday that was organized by county health officials and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors. She was among several people who gave public input during the event held at the Finley Center in Santa Rosa.

The forum, which county health officials said was the first of its kind, brought behavioral health staff from the county and local nonprofits together to discuss mental health challenges facing the community. Some 250 people registered for the event, which was also livestreamed via Zoom.

Four forum panels addressed issues related to substance use disorder treatment services and the opioid crisis; mental health and wellness needs; crisis services and suicide prevention; and workforce challenges.

One issue that kept surfacing during the discussions was the difficulty recruiting and retaining staff in the county’s behavioral health division, which has a 28% staff vacancy rate in 2022. That’s more than double the vacancy rate of 13% in 2021.

One county health official said that during the pandemic, enrollment in Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program, increased by 15%, but the statewide roster of licensed mental health workers decreased 20%.

The staffing crisis is evident at the county’s crisis stabilization unit, which offered 16 beds when it opened in 2016. That number soon rose to 24. But several years of budget challenges have greatly reduced the number of available beds.

Officials said that since the pandemic, the county has been unable to staff the unit consistently at even 12 beds. The fallout of not having enough psychiatric emergency beds is felt at local hospitals.

Leah Gehri, director of operations, trauma, critical care and emergency services at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, speaking during a public input session, said local hospitals are feeling the impact.

“On any given day, we have five or more patients waiting for up to 60 hours for a crisis bed,” she said. “Based on national benchmarks, we are approximately 90 beds short in Sonoma County.”

Each of the panels was moderated by a member of the county Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Susan Gorin was not present but appeared in a recorded video message at the start of the event.

One of the panels focused on mental health and wellness needs, which have been exacerbated by years of natural disasters, from wildfires to floods to an historic pandemic.

Panelist Dmitra Smith, program manager of the Sonoma County Black Therapy Fund, said that in the Black community these factors are compounded by the trauma of racial violence and “anti-Blackness.”

She said that many of the people who receive services from the fund are also dealing with systemic failures in housing, education and economic inequality that leads to food insecurity. Smith said 60% of the program’s participants reported they had lost income, a job or were evicted during the COVID-19 pandemic; 58% are unemployed or are very low-income.

She said the therapy fund does excellent work, but “it really feels like a Band-aid until we are addressing the lack of housing, the lack of upward mobility, the lack of generational wealth … our students graduating at 64%, people are really struggling.”

Smith called on the county to “declare racism a public health crisis.”

Kathleen Connolly, the mother whose son died of an overdose in March, speaking outside the hall where the event was held, said she and her husband lost their home during the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Her son “had a lot of issues” including an HIV diagnosis.

He kept up with his daily HIV medications but not his mental health meds, she said. She said he had been to the crisis stabilization unit several times. When he was released after his brief stay on March 3, she said she didn’t know where he went.

“He showed up at home at 4:30 in the morning and went into his room,” she said, adding that when she found him in the morning he was “cold and stiff.“ The paramedics at the scene were tearful, she said.

“They said it’s terrible right now, lots of people are dying,” Connolly said. On Twitter @pressreno.

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