At least one member of the Eureka City Council is frustrated with the way mental health issues are being addressed locally.
Councilmember Austin Allison, who works as a lab tech at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Eureka, told the other members of the Eureka City Council that the 20-bed emergency department is routinely overcrowded because of patients coming in with mental health issues, leading to wait times of more than 10 hours on some nights for those with other medical emergencies.
“The elephant in the room” is the county’s Department of Health and Human Services, he said.
“I really want to hear what DHHS is doing to address addiction, mental health and the homeless issues in our society here,” Allison said. “The emergency department is only 20 beds, and many times of the day and night, it can sometimes be half full with patients waiting to be seen at Sempervirens for mental health issues.”
Sempervirens is the community’s only psychiatric facility and has 16 beds. Allison said when Sempervirens is at capacity, there’s nowhere else for people dealing with a mental health issue.
When half the beds in the emergency room are full, “it severely limits the ability to see other patients in an emergency,” Allison said.
Christian Hill, spokesperson for St. Joseph’s hospital, confirmed that “the primary driver for periodic extended wait times is due to the increase in the community seeking primary and mental health care in a medical setting specifically designed for life-threatening or emergent care.”
“This speaks to the national trend of a shortage of primary care and mental health providers,” Hill wrote in an email.
Paul Bugnacki, DHHS deputy director for mental health, said the county is doing its best to address mental health issues, but Sempervirens is the only psychiatric hospital in the northern region of California.
“Del Norte, Siskiyou, Trinity (counties) — none have psychiatric facilities,” Bugnacki said.
In order to be admitted to the facility, there are specific criteria the person has to meet. Sometimes DHHS gets called for people who might have been high on methamphetamine and acting disruptive, but don’t necessarily have a mental health issue, he said.
“They might (have a mental health issue), but they also might not,” Bugnacki said.
There are four beds available in the crisis stabilization unit, he said, where people experiencing a less severe mental health issue can be treated within 24 hours.
The state guidelines require a person who comes in on a legal mandate for an involuntary psychiatric evaluation, which happens if they’re posing a danger to themselves or others, to be evaluated within a specific time frame and the county is “still within the state guidelines,” Bugnacki said.
A full assessment needs to be completed within 60 hours while a complete physical health evaluation needs to be done within 24 hours, he said. The individuals are first taken to the hospital after which they are evaluated to see if the mandate to keep them involuntarily is appropriate, he said.
“We do bump up against full capacity,” but not all people need to be put into a psychiatric hospital, Bugnacki said.
He noted when it’s not necessary, they try to provide services, such as medication or assistance for families, in the least restrictive environment possible.
DHHS started a mobile response team to address mental health issues two years ago, according to Bugnacki. The hours are currently 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but the hours will be extended to 11 p.m. once more clinicians can be hired.
However, Allison covers the night shift at the hospital and any calls received at night are responded to by the mobile response team the next morning.
Covering a wide geographical range and being in a rural area pose some challenges, particularly in recruiting qualified staff, Bugnacki said.
“All hospitals are experiencing shortages with doctors and nurses,” he said. “We are, too, but we’re addressing that.”
That’s adding strain to other departments and organizations in the community, such as the Eureka Police Department, which have to act as social workers, and the hospital, Allison said.
“Sometimes I feel like the city is being more creative with solutions than the county is in trying to address mental health, addiction and homeless issues in the city of Eureka,” Allison said.
Bugnacki said there is always room for improvement, but addressing mental health issues is also a process.
“There’s a myth Mental Health isn’t doing enough because people might see someone that’s homeless or singing really loud or shouting across the street,” Bugnacki said. ” … But that person might still be doing better than they were yesterday.”
Allison hopes to see representatives of DHHS speak to the council in the future about its efforts to address mental health issues in Eureka. It’s unclear whether that will come to fruition.
To find out more about the services offered by the county’s Mental Health Services, go to https://humboldtgov.org/MentalHealth.
Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.