Mental illness is common, affecting 1 in 5 adults. Lifetime mental health conditions begin early: 50% by age 14 and 75% by age 24. Yet the average delay between symptoms and treatment is 11 years – despite research that tells us that the earlier treatment begins, the greater the hope of recovery.
Mental illness affects a person’s, thinking, feeling and moods. Many persons who live with a mental health condition function well; their condition is not obvious. But serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression, can impact day-to-day functioning and relationships – and the entire family.
NAMI, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, is dedicated to helping persons with mental illness and those who care for and support them, to build a better life. At the national level, NAMI advocates for increased research, access to services, education, treatment, and support.
At the local level, NAMI Sonoma County provides education programs, community and student presentations, weekly support groups and a bilingual Warmline. These are open to anyone affected by mental health challenges, personally or as a family member or caregiver.
Historically, treatment options for persons living with serious illnesses like schizophrenia were very limited, as was research and knowledge. Considered unable to function in the community, thousands were institutionalized for life – until the 1960s when State hospitals began to close, often leaving patients and their families on their own.
Public knowledge about mental illness was very limited and support more so. Families supporting a loved one with these illnesses felt isolated, ashamed, even guilty. They were often counseled not to talk about it openly, contributing to the stigma of mental illness.
In 1981, a group of local families who had a daughter, son, parent, sibling, or grandchild with a serious mental illness began meeting up in Santa Rosa. They shared an “urgent need” for information and support. Their group evolved to become NAMI Sonoma County, which has been allied with the National Alliance on Mental Illness since 1984.
Today, awareness and knowledge about mental health have much improved. Recovery is seen as possible. Knowing the warning signs and getting care early have been shown to improve outcomes. Connectedness and support are considered vital for both the people experiencing mental health challenges and their family members.
Yet today’s mental health care system is highly fragmented. There are cost barriers, insurance coverage restrictions, and a shortage of providers. Psychiatrists and mental health professionals who speak a language other than English are in particularly short supply. Waits for outpatient counseling appointments are common. Waits for an open psychiatric bed are also common, often creating a need to board patients in hospital emergency departments for hours or days.
Families often struggle to provide support for a loved one whose mental illness means that they cannot see that they are sick and refuse care or medications that could help. Many families struggle with loved ones who face both mental illness and substance use disorders.
When a loved one experiences a mental health crisis due to manic, depressive, suicidal or psychotic episodes, a family may make the difficult decision to call 911 for help. In Sonoma County, they may be fortunate to have a crisis occur when the county’s Mobile Support Teams are on duty. Members of these teams offer crisis assessment, de-escalation, and resource referrals, but they have limited hours, limited staffing and must be invited to assist by law enforcement.
Mental health crises that are not handled well can end in injury or loss of life, and can also result in a loved one’s arrest, this is one reason why the Sonoma County Jail has been called the largest provider of mental health services in the county. Fortunately, Sonoma County is looking toward creating a new approach to mental health crisis intervention.
The cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma, and their police departments, are investing in pilot projects that mean most mental health crisis calls will be responded to by mental health professionals – a significant step in the right direction. And in 2022, a new nationwide three-digit number (988) will be put into place for calls related to suicide intervention. NAMI and other mental health organizations hope that this number will be used for any kind of mental health crisis. But a system that can adequately respond to these calls will need funding.
In Sonoma County, these remain significant unmet capacity needs for a mental health system that offers care at multiple levels, ranging from increased providers, to 24/7, county-wide crisis intervention services, psychiatric beds, post-crisis residential services and supportive housing. So long as these are in short supply, the community will continue to bear the costs of a system primarily focused on costly crisis-level, care. And families will continue to need support and connection with others who understand the challenges.
NAMI Sonoma County wants anyone experiencing mental health-related challenges to realize that they are not alone. Their Warmline is a starting place, for information, support and help with identifying resources that can help, at 866-960-6264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.