Over the past 25 years, Arcata resident Leah Nagy has come to know mental illness. Her youngest son is bipolar, and four of her grandchildren suffer from severe mental illness.
“I have a lot of personal experience,” he said. “Which, you know, you never want to be drafted in mental health.”
As president of the Humboldt County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and a county family liaison, she spent a busy recent day coordinating resources for families and attending meetings. By 4pm he was just sitting down for lunch.
Nagy smiles easily and quickly shares his cell phone number, which is always on and often off, as families seek help.
“People need what they need, you know, whether they need a place to listen or, you know, ideas about self-care. I just think it’s important that they get a chance to not feel alone and so isolated,” she said. .
This support is critical in Humboldt County, where mental health services are severely underserved Like many places, the county is dealing with the effects of the Covid epidemic and the opioid epidemic. But Humboldt, a rural county in far northern California, is deprived of resources and funding. Its remote location exacerbates the challenges facing the region.
Now, the county’s Department of Health and Human Services and other partners are working on a possible solution: a proposed emergency mental health care facility in Arcata that would provide beds for patients to sober up, a crisis stabilization center and a substance use disorder residential treatment program, among other resources.
‘There’s still hope’
Nagy has degrees in child development and special education and has spent 20 years in special education. But she insists that “I’m not a therapist. I’m just a family member.”
“I was drafted into this thing, and all I have here is life experience. That’s all I have,” he said, as he prepared to lead a weekly NAMI support group meeting in Eureka.
Twelve people gathered around a large wooden table in a conference room, with two others on Zoom. Most were parents of children with mental illness. They update each other on how their kids are doing; Some were doing well while others were struggling.
Many parents discuss whether their children are taking their medication.
“I have a hard time telling him not to go on his medication. He’s in a trench, and he won’t get out. He doesn’t want to be on medication,” Carol Green said of her son.
Others struggled with knowing how best to help a child in need.
“I don’t know how to help him. I don’t know,” Liz Houghton, one of the group’s co-facilitators, said of her son. “Or we wait for the crisis.”
“You’ve got us! You’ve got our group! We’ll help you through the hard parts,” Nagy told a couple navigating a transition with their son.
Michelle Norton’s son was suicidal and had taken large amounts of the anesthetic ketamine.
“Right now, my thing is accepting that he’s probably going to die. I’m really having a hard time with it,” she said with emotion.
Another attendee, Gretchen Curtis, chimed in: “But I mean… there’s still hope.”
Maintaining hope is especially important in this group. One of their mottos of support, which is passed around and recited aloud at the end of each meeting, is “We will never give up hope!”
But finding resources to help those who are struggling can be a real challenge.
Lack of infrastructure
According to the county’s chief public defender, Luke Brownfield, in Humboldt County, “the infrastructure is not there to meet the needs.”
Born and raised in Brownfield County, he is familiar with its beautiful natural surroundings, its uniquely “great” people and its “different ways of thinking.”
Mental illness is common among clients in his department.
“I would say our percentage would be at least 75 percent of our repeat offenders suffering from a mental health history,” he said.
Brownfield often puts clients through mental health diversion, where if someone can link a diagnosed mental illness to a crime they committed, they can get treatment instead of jail time and ultimately have the case dismissed. But he said there aren’t enough suppliers to meet that need.
This is also a problem for hospitals. In this rural county, there is only one inpatient psychiatric hospital and a severe shortage of hospital beds.
Dr. James Goldberg, medical director of the county’s two emergency departments, said patients needing psychiatric care take up significant hospital bed space.
“Just earlier this week, out of our 22 beds that we have here, we actually had 12 behavioral health patients,” he said.
Patients in crisis are often brought to a medical hospital, but they often do not require medical care. Staff there don’t have extensive training to help these patients, and they are sometimes abused, Goldberg said.
“Unfortunately, like many other communities, Humboldt County has been affected by drug use, and particularly methamphetamine, which is really devastating,” said Paul Bugnacki, deputy director of the Humboldt County Division of Health and Human Services’ Behavioral Health Division. “And the need for psychiatric services has increased and there aren’t many beds available across the state.”
‘Trying to do the right thing’
To help address this issue, work continues on proposed emergency mental health care facilities. In February, project leaders applied for more than $12 million in grant money from the state’s Behavioral Health Continuum Infrastructure Program, which is dedicated to behavioral health, and they will hear back this spring if they received the funding. But even if they succeed, the facility won’t be complete for at least another two years.
Brownfield is not a fan of the proposed facility because he sees it as another version of incarceration. Instead, he is trying to start a mental health court in the county, which would provide individualized mental health treatment plans, and he will test a version of that program this summer.
In a community this close, the work is a personal mission for him.
“Being a public defender, I often see all my old classmates come through the courthouse, some of them defendants, some of them judges, some of them victims. You all know,” he said.
Despite the difficulty of the situation, Brownfield says client success stories happen often, and they make him appreciate his work even more. She is pleased to see more focus on mental health treatment in the community recently.
“Everyone is trying to do the right thing. We are all trying to figure it out,” he said. “I’m mostly optimistic about progress because at least now it’s an issue that people are talking about and discussing.”
Attitudes are beginning to change, according to Darian Harris, chief executive of two Providence hospitals in Humboldt County.
“There’s a greater appreciation for the need to invest in mental and behavioral health,” he said, especially “relating to health equity in rural and remote communities like ours.”
In Eureka, Nagy’s support group ends, and people hang out and hang out for a while. Remnants of their conversation littered the table: water bottles, notebooks, a box of the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan.
Talking about and dealing with mental illness is difficult, and Nagy has done both for decades. So he had to find a way to take care of himself.
“The best thing I’ve done, I put in a hot tub under a redwood tree in my backyard. And every night I have a nice hot tub with spa music, you know, and I light candles. I have a little Christ and Buddha. Put up altars and anything else I could find that seemed, you know, uplifting,” he said.
What keeps her going, she says, is her desire to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness and her hope that even if you can’t help your own child, you can help someone else.
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