Simitian Pushes Mental Health “Navigators”


SAN JOSE – Today, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors unanimously directed County staff to develop a program to help residents navigate the county’s mental health system, including public and private resources.

Proposed by County Supervisor Joe Simitian, Chair of the County’s Health and Hospital Committee, the new program is designed to be a resource to those who encounter challenges or barriers to access when seeking mental health care for themselves or their loved ones.

“People who need mental health help—for themselves, a friend or a family member—are already in a world of hurt. Then they have to confront a ‘system’ that’s complicated, confusing, and bureaucratic. What I hear too often is that folks really need a guide—I call it a ‘navigator’—to help them find the right path to treatment, and then stay on it,” said Simitian.

“Even before the pandemic, demand for mental health and substance use services was high,” said Simitian. “The pandemic—with its resulting isolation and economic consequences—has intensified these challenges.

Sadly, folks seeking help often encounter a disjointed and complicated healthcare system, making a difficult moment even worse. By guiding patients through and around barriers, we can help them get the treatment they need so they can get their lives back on track.”

Over the last year, more than 40,000 people have 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 demand for services intensified during the pandemic, from both existing patients as well as those seeking care for the first time. The ongoing stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 have also exacerbated substance use disorders.

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.

The Navigator is envisioned as a way to connect patients and their families to a range of County and County-contracted services, and when appropriate, even identify private resources. The end goal is to connect patients with the resources that best fit their needs. When possible, that includes finding help in the communities where patients live.

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

An integral part of the County’s behavioral health system, nonprofit partners received approximately 24,000 referrals over the last year. Navigators will work with these nonprofit partners to connect patients to the best resources for them and their families, in addition to providing support and troubleshooting if the first referral isn’t the right fit. 

More than 30,000 people in the County struggle with serious mental health conditions. They may be facing not only mental health issues but also homelessness, substance abuse, and/or complex chronic medical conditions. For this demographic, the Mental Health Systems Navigator is intended to complement another County program that is expected to be operational in February 2022.

At Simitian’s behest, the Board approved the implementation of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), also known as Laura’s Law, earlier this year. AOT will allow the County to provide court-ordered outpatient mental health treatment to residents with severe mental illness.

The AOT program is targeted specifically to individuals whose illnesses are so severe that they don’t recognize the need for treatment, have a history of refusing or abandoning treatment services, and are unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision. 

“Having someone listen to you in your language of choice, with compassion, kindness and without judgment and then link you to right resource can make all the difference in accessing behavioral health service successfully,” said Joan Baran, Clinical Services Director at Children’s Health Council.

Simitian’s 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.


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