Recruiting, retaining therapists is a challenge for county Mental Health

County Mental Health has vacancy rate of 33%

Two large sheets of paper display public comments regarding how Mental Health Services Act funding should be prioritized for the next three years. A group of about 20 people showed up to the Jefferson Community Center in Eureka on Tueday to express their concerns about gaps in local mental health services, with a lack of psychiatrists coming up as a top concern. (Sonia Waraich — The Times-Standard)
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Humboldt County is in dire need of more psychiatrists and support groups, say mental health providers and consumers.

Several people said the area is lacking the psychiatrists it needs to adequately maintain the mental health of the people who live here at a meeting held by the Humboldt County’s Department of Health and Human Services at the Jefferson Community Center in Eureka on Tuesday. The meeting sought public input about where there are gaps in mental health services.

Cathy Rigby, Mental Health Services Act coordinator, acknowledged the county needs more therapists, but currently she said, “county Mental Health has like a 33% vacancy rate.”

“Nobody’s happy about this,” Rigby said. “We all want more counselors. We’d love to have psychiatrists come up here instead of having to contract with them.”

Most of the people county Mental Health gets just graduated with their master’s degree from Humboldt State University and typically begin working with very distressed populations they have little to no experience with, she said.

“They never experienced that,” Rigby said. “Their education did not prepare them for that. They burn out and they’re gone in six months to a year.”

Maggie Kraft, executive director of the Area 1 Agency on Aging, suggested prioritizing funding that’s available through the Mental Health Services Act to prioritize things like paying for the wages of a psychiatrist rather than funding a laundry list of services.

“If we can only do four things versus 20 things, what are the four things that will really have the best outcome?” Kraft said.

It’s difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the programs that are already in place because the state only began requiring programs to evaluate themselves a couple of years ago, Rigby said.

“Unfortunately, it’s a reality a lot of the times that unless you’re told that you have to do something, you just don’t do it,” Rigby said. “But I have been working with all of the programs to let them know that it is important because, for some of the programs, we can’t really say for sure what are the good outcomes from supporting this.”

By the next planning cycle, Rigby said she is expecting to have more information about the effectiveness of the Mental Health Services Act programs.

In 2004, California voters approved Proposition 63, known as the Mental Health Services Act. Once it was enacted into law Jan. 1, 2005, it placed a 1% tax on personal income above $1 million in order to fund expanded mental health services for children, adults and seniors. However, those funds can’t go towards programs that are funded through other legislation.

Out of 456 community survey responses, Rigby said the top three priorities that emerged were providing support for people discharged from the crisis stabilization unit and Sempervirens Psychiatric Health Facility, the only inpatient psychiatric hospital within 300 miles; substance use disorder services, for which Mental Health Services Act funds can only be used if there is also a mental health diagnosis; and housing.

While psychiatrists might be difficult to come by, some people mentioned support groups as an effective service in the absence of therapy.

“I really believe peer-run support groups are crucial and essential because we have a sense of belonging,” said homeless advocate Vernon Price, “a sense of well being, of knowing that we’re not alone and we can share with one another.”

To take the community survey and provide feedback, go to bit.ly/2Tq0QcE.

Sonia Waraich can be reached at 707-441-0506.

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