Help Navigating the Mental Health Maze

People who need mental health help—for themselves, a friend, or a family member—are already in a world of hurt. Sadly, these folks often encounter a disjointed, complicated, or bureaucratic health care system, making a difficult situation even worse.

Even before COVID-19 impacted our lives, the demand for mental health and substance use services in our County was high, with more than 33,000 County residents with serious mental illness or substance abuse disorder using our behavioral health system. The pandemic—with its resulting isolation and economic consequences—has intensified these challenges.

What I hear too often is that folks really need a guide, so I proposed creating a team of “Navigators.” I’m pleased that my Board colleagues agreed, voting unanimously to develop a Mental Health Systems Navigator Program to help people find the right path to treatment, and then stay on it.

The notion of ‘Systems Navigators,’ which has successfully been used by the County’s Emergency Agency Network (EAN) partners, is designed to provide a one-stop shop for guidance—in this case for mental health services.

Using a Navigator is envisioned as a way to connect patients and their families to a range of County and County-contracted nonprofit services, and when appropriate, identify private resources. When possible, that includes finding help in the communities where patients live.

Following established privacy protocols, trained County Navigator staff will be available to listen to concerns, assist with information and referrals, and ultimately eliminate some of the obstacles preventing a person in need from accessing services—or direct patients to professionals who can do so.

The end goal is to connect patients with the resources that best fit their needs, provide support, and troubleshoot if the first referral isn’t the right fit. In addition to Board approval, my proposal also received support from Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County, Behavioral Health Contractors’ Association (BHCA), and Momentum for Health.

Over the last year, more than 40,000 people accessed the County’s behavioral health system and about 4,500 have accessed the County’s addiction and substance use services, representing a 13% increase over the previous year.  

The average wait time for our County’s Call Center, where residents can access behavioral health services, is about ten minutes, but some residents can wait for over an hour. That’s not acceptable. We’ll never know how many ran into a barrier and simply gave up.

We can always do more to help these people and their loved ones to access the services they need and are entitled to. Mental Health System Navigators, by guiding patients through and around barriers, can help them get the treatment they need, and get their lives back on track.

Joe Simitian
Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors

This article was originally published in the Saratoga Spotlight in January 2022.





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