People at the margins of society — including the homeless, those with substance abuse issues and inmates at a federal prison in Lompoc — have lost the limited access they had to mental health resources before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Mental health affects every aspect of your life,” said Taylor Viens, a development and administrative assistant with Sanctuary Centers, a Santa Barbara nonprofit. “We are in a perfect storm.”
Sanctuary Centers provides counseling, treatment and other resources to people dealing with issues like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and other disorders. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, the organization has had to completely shift how it does business, including stopping all face-to-face therapy.
That’s an issue when serving populations like the homeless, who are much less likely to have access to a phone or stable internet. Homeless people are also at increased risk for getting COVID-19, as they can’t shelter-in-place.
“They don’t have the luxury of isolating,” Viens said.
In order to provide services to at least some of the clients the center normally works with, it applied for emergency grants to get additional webcams and buy phones. The webcams are being used to facilitate telehealth services, and the phones are for the homeless so that they have a way to call into those services and get help.
Another population the centers serve, the incarcerated, are also being heavily impacted by the crisis.
Because of the outbreak at the Federal Correctional Institution Lompoc, Sanctuary Centers hasn’t been able to provide services there.
The work the organization does there is to reduce the chances that prisoners will commit additional crimes once released. Without being able to get into the prison, and without the referrals the courts usually provide, there’s a lot of people who need services that Sanctuary Centers can’t reach.
“Huge swaths of the population aren’t receiving services,” Viens said. “Services they came to rely on.”
Other mental health organizations, like the National Alliance on Mental Illness, have also had to radically change how they do business.
NAMI has a chapter in each of the three counties on the Central Coast, and to reach people while in-person services are still unavailable, NAMI San Luis Obispo County is organizing family support groups through Zoom.
The family support groups are ways that friends and loved ones of people going through mental health crises can reach out, learn more about how to support the person in crisis and build connections with other people in the same situation. The support groups were moved online to help people through the crisis.
“We just feel like this is going to be going on for a while, and we won’t be able to gather as we normally have,” said NAMI SLO President Pam Zweifel.
NAMI Ventura County is doing something similar with a Family and Friends webinar, which will teach people about topics like diagnoses, treatment, recovery, crisis preparation and the resources NAMI can help connect people with.
And the amount of support someone gets during a crisis can impact not just how they deal with the crisis as its happening, but also how they process it going forward.
Suzanne Grimmesey, chief quality care and strategy officer for the Santa Barbara County Department of Behavioral Wellness, pointed to previous disasters the area has been through as examples.
“The community has been through a lot,” Grimmesey said, referring to the Thomas fire and the subsequent mud flows, “but in each of those bad things that have happened, (the community) has been there.”
Grimmesey said the experience with prior disasters has also given the area resiliency. It’ll be less difficult for people to endure and bounce back after this crisis than it might be for people in areas that haven’t been hit recently and don’t have that experience.
“I can’t help but think we are positioned quite strongly because of what we’ve been through,” Grimmesey said.
• Contact Amber Hair at [email protected]