Publisher’s note: Beginning today Lake Tahoe News will be delving into the topic of mental health in the Lake Tahoe Basin. This is the first of several stories that will be running through October.
By Jessie Marchesseau
Considering one in five adults experiences some sort of mental illness in any given year, it’s no surprise this subject hits close to home for so many.
Yet even with such high numbers, mental illness still carries a stigma. Doing away with this stigma is a key factor to ensure people receive the necessary treatment, explained Michael Ward, project facilitator for the Mental Health Cooperative on the South Shore. He said mental health needs to simply be considered a part of the health system as a whole, not a separate issue.
“We’re not going to make real progress without helping our community to understand that it’s OK to talk about these problems,” said Rhonda Sneeringer, chief medical officer for Barton Health.
Barton hosted its third annual mental health forum on April 7 at Lake Tahoe Community College.
About 70 people attended, and nearly everyone seemed passionate about the topic. Many were industry professionals such as doctors and therapists; some were employees and volunteers for local health organizations. Representatives from area schools attended, as did the South Lake Tahoe chief of police and community members whose lives have been affected by friends or family with mental illness.
And over the last few years local entities have been joining forces to make that a reality.
Progress so far
Talking about and recognizing mental health issues are some things health service providers have been encouraging within the community, especially with the younger generations. The fact that 50 percent of chronic mental illness begins by age 14 and 75 percent by 24 are reasons to make sure kids and teens are informed, too. This is partly why local schools were prolific recipients of the Barton Foundation’s community health grants last year.
Kindle Craig, Barton Health’s director of Strategy and Development, took a moment to acknowledge the grant recipients which also included Live Violence Free, NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness), Sierra Child and Family Services, and the South Tahoe Drug Free Coalition, as well as funding for brochure racks displaying informational mental health brochures.
Craig explained to Lake Tahoe News there is a waiting list to receive mental health treatment in South Lake Tahoe for all ages. Wait time depends on the specific circumstances of each individual, and navigating the system to find the correct type of treatment can be difficult.
This makes South Lake Tahoe’s mental health needs seem dire. But as part of the larger picture, she said, in relation to the rest of California, South Lake’s situation is comparatively not bad. However, being in a rural community means that even one tragic mental health crisis, such as a suicide, can affect a large portion of the population.
These are some of the reasons Barton Health chose to lead the effort to improve the state of the local mental health system. But Craig stressed they are not doing it on their own; this is a collaborative effort between Barton, El Dorado County and other area health providers.
“We have a collective awareness of the issue, and we all have a collective buy-in,” Craig said.
She described it as all the entities extending their reach a little bit, and together they can fill in the gaps. This idea has proved effective, and the system has come a long way in recent years, thanks, in part, to annual forums like this one.
Last year’s forum was a full-day workshop out of which came the Mental Health Cooperative and a long list of goals for the following six months. Among those goals were a wellness service directory, securing new leadership for the local NAMI chapter, developing two new transition houses for those in need and opening a warming room for the homeless. Ward announced 95 percent of the dozens of goals on the list were completed within the specified timeframe.
After seeing how far the mental health arena has come, the focus turned to what will be coming up.
First on the radar for the upcoming year is Mental Health Awareness Month in May. Entities all over town will be hosting events, some attendees even created events on the spot. A calendar will be available online within the next couple weeks. Buttons depicting green ribbons were distributed to wear, and residents were encouraged to raise awareness via social media throughout the month of May using the hashtag #eachmindmatters.
As for the Mental Health Cooperative, its list of initiatives for the upcoming year is lengthy but revolves around three main topics: access, awareness and resources. One of the first orders of business, however, is a trip to Washington, D.C., where representatives will be seeking grant money from the national Health Resources and Services Administration with which to implement these initiatives.
Barton is also making efforts to provide more access to mental health services. It has increased the number of available social workers and counselors, and will be hiring a psychiatrist this summer.
Even though substantial progress is being made, there is a long way to go. It is still essential for individuals to do their part.
How we can help
Sabrina Owens, program manager of El Dorado County Mental Health in South Lake Tahoe, gave a short presentation to educate viewers on how to recognize and take proper action when it comes to mental health issues. She pointed out how symptoms can often be vague and overlap from one illness to another. Symptoms such as excessive sleeping, dropping grades in students and unusual behavior could be signs of a greater underlying problem.
Being able to diagnose the issue is not the goal, simply acknowledging an issue and encouraging the person to seek further evaluation is what is important. Time is of the essence in mental treatment, so she encouraged people to be diligent and not just let possible symptoms slide by.
The forum wrapped up with an interactive exercise where the room broke into groups, each with a specified “patient.” The groups then had the task of talking through the chain of events leading to recovery and identifying the issues that could arise along the way.
Obstacles including insurance, education, misdiagnosis, avoiding treatment and navigating the system were identified, among others. The exercise opened eyes and discussions about where the system can fall short, what could use more improvement, as well as how we can all help loved ones and others in our community get the treatment they deserve.
In the end, attendees from all walks of life left educated, inspired and motivated.
“We’re all just trying to create a vibrant, healthy community,” Ward said.