There’s not a single solution to fix a collapsed mental health system. But good reporting provides a foundation for change.
(Jade Martinez-Pogue/Noozhawk photo)
In March 2020, it felt like the whole world had stopped. The freeways weren’t buzzing at 8 a.m. with the sounds of people driving to and from work, you couldn’t hear people’s conversations or laughs while walking down the street, and you would pass closed business after closed business.
Everyone was isolated in their homes with whoever they were living with at the time — their families, college roommates, or just themselves. The uncertainty of the pandemic lasted a lot longer than I think anyone would have imagined. I saw an unexpected change in my mental health that came along with the forced isolation, as I expect many others grappled with as well.
While covering Santa Barbara County’s weekly Public Health COVID-19 briefings, I remember how the presentations would alternate between the Public Health Department and the Behavioral Wellness Department. That was the first time I really started to recognize how much our mental health affects every aspect of our lives, from physical health to relationships to work performance.
While I have never been a part of the mental health system before, I had heard horror stories about how difficult it was to navigate and how it felt virtually impossible to find the resources needed just to take care of ourselves.
With a huge part of the conversation surrounding COVID-19 focusing on maintaining mental well-being, I knew that I wanted to do my project on the resources available in Santa Barbara County. What I didn’t know was how hard it was going to be to learn the system enough to be able to write about it in a meaningful way.
In my first two stories, published on Santa Barbara County’s online news outlet Noozhawk, I examined the impact of having only 16 acute mental health inpatient beds at Santa Barbara County’s Psychiatric Health Facility, which is meant to serve a population of roughly 375,000 people over the age of 18.
I didn’t expect that people were in emergency rooms for as long as 10 days waiting to get acute mental health treatment. I didn’t expect that the county’s 16 beds were constantly full, causing overloaded emergency rooms to be used as holding areas and sending patients hundreds of miles away from home to get treatment.
I didn’t expect that the cost of sending someone to an out-of-county hospital for help costs the county up to nearly $1,600 a night. I certainly did not expect that the county’s Crisis Stabilization Unit, which is supposed to act as a lower level of care to keep people from needing to be sent outside of the county or waiting in an emergency room, was virtually untouched by patients, as I reported in my third story.
But the hardest part about writing my series on the county’s acute mental health resources wasn’t the unexpected facts and figures showing just how lacking those resources were. It wasn’t trying to obtain the data, make sense of it, or find expert sources who wouldn’t sell me an overglamorized picture of the patient experience.
The hardest part about writing the stories were the many people I interviewed who allowed themselves to be vulnerable enough with me to tell me just how difficult it was to find the help that they or a family member needed — and the devastating consequences of not being able to find that help. It was sitting on a Zoom call with a mother whose son committed suicide. It was talking on the phone and having to ask the person to repeat what they said because I couldn’t hear the words muffled behind their tears.
Reporting on this project challenged me to have those conversations that I would normally shy away from, to get to know my sources who came to trust me to tell their story. It was a lot more relationship-building than I would have expected, and it strengthened skills that I didn’t know I needed strengthening.
The hard part about writing about a system that is so clearly underfunded, understaffed, and underrecognized is that there is not an easy solution. While I wish I had the time and the resources to break down every single part of the system that was lacking, it would take me years.
People have told me that my stories led to discussions at National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and Behavioral Wellness Commission meetings, but I felt like there was still so much of the story to be told, and that weighed heavy on me.
After putting my blood, sweat, and tears into this investigative project for the past six months, I was expecting to feel more fulfilled when the stories published. I think that’s the toll of reporting on a subject of such weight, it feels like exposing the problems in one branch of a failed system isn’t enough.
That stuck with me for a while, until I realized that my stories started a conversation. I realized that my work brought to light things that people may not have paid attention to before. And while I realize that my three stories aren’t going to magically fix the shattered mental health system in Santa Barbara County, neither will more beds, or more money, or more time. But all of those things are steps, they’re progress.
My biggest takeaway from this project is that while things won’t and can’t change overnight, it’s the little building blocks that lead to substantial change, and I take huge pride in knowing that my work was one of those building blocks.