Do Santa Barbara County residents have adequate access to mental health beds?

Published on
October 21, 2021

Imagine being at your lowest point, a breaking point. Imagine you have mustered up the bravery to reach out and seek mental health treatment. Then imagine being sent hundreds of miles away, embarking on an hours-long journey to an unfamiliar place to get that help that could save your life.

This is a problem that has plagued Santa Barbara County for decades.

With only 16 acute care mental health beds at Santa Barbara County’s Psychiatric Health Facility — and no inpatient beds for youth — residents are transported as far as San Diego County to get access to what can be life-or-death care. 

Santa Barbara County Civil Grand Jury reports dating back to at least 2001 repeatedly identify severe gaps in mental health acute inpatient services and funding, and jurors over the decades have called for the county to provide more funding and develop more beds to serve the local population.

The county currently contracts with other counties and facilities to send Santa Barbara County residents elsewhere when its own beds are full, and those contracts cost millions of dollars a year. In the 2006-07 fiscal year, 392 patients were transported from Santa Barbara County to Vista Del Mar in Ventura County to receive acute inpatient care, which cost the county approximately $1.1 million.  

How does the facility decide who gets in-county services and who doesn’t? 

The county has tried to reduce the local demand for inpatient acute care mental health beds by developing two crisis stabilization units, which provide a maximum of 23 hours of care to adults over the age of 18. The facilities were opened in 2016 and 2018, but can only serve between eight to 12 patients at a time.

In 2016, the Department of Behavioral Wellness identified the need for 26 acute inpatient beds inside the county. Five years later, there are still only 16.

In 2016, the Department of Behavioral Wellness identified the need for 16 crisis stabilization units. Five years later, there are only eight.

The lack of acute care beds in Santa Barbara County has caused long emergency room holds for people experiencing a mental health crisis, millions of dollars in government spending to send people out-of-county for care, and leaves hundreds of county residents without local access to these critical mental health services.

While the county has made progress on developing services in the behavioral wellness continuum of care, the shortage of acute care beds continues.  

This reporting project for the 2021 Data Fellowship will dive deeper into this issue.

I will follow the funding to see how much it costs the county to contract with other counties for mental health inpatient services, how much funding is allocated to local acute care beds, and the barriers and opportunities for expanding in-county services. 

By analyzing Psychiatric Health Facility and emergency room admissions before and after crisis stabilization and other facilities opened, I will find out what impact these interventions had on reducing the demand on inpatient beds at the PHF and out-of-county facilities. 

I will also get data from the facilities to see how many patients are turned away and, if so, where they are being sent and what other resources are provided. This will give context about the scope of the demand and the services available for people experiencing a mental health crisis.  

With the large amount of isolation that has characterized the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges are becoming an even greater issue than before. This solutions-oriented project will investigate the scope of the bed shortage problem and what more can be done.