County’s behavioral health branch welcomes community input on mental health services

Tulare County acknowledges the rise in mental and behavioral health cases due to the pandemic and encourages individuals to join focus groups to talk about how the county can improve their provided services

TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County Behavioral Health Services is looking to improve their crisis care system and they are seeking community input on what they are doing well and where they could use improvements. 

“Isolation, quarantine, remote learning, business impacts, and physical distancing has impacted everyone, some more than others,” Donna Ortiz, Tulare County Behavioral Health Branch director said. “It is critical that we examine and evaluate our crisis care system, recognizing the need to address whole-community behavioral health needs.”

The goal is to create improvements based on recommendations to grow infrastructure and mobilize their services in crisis care. The plan is to organize focus groups that include current and former service users, their family members, professionals and other individuals who have an interest or knowledge of the current Mental Health Crisis Care systems in Tulare County. Behavioral Health services will work with community mental health and wellness partners, Recovery Innovations – a consulting group – and individuals in the community to help determine if they are meeting crisis care needs locally. More specifically with the mental health and substance use disorder services currently provided. 

Participation in the focus groups is not limited to those receiving care. Anyone with knowledge or experience in the fields of behavioral health and crisis care are welcome and officials are open to input related to experiences and ideas on the topic. Anyone who has experience with the current crisis response system in the county is encouraged to participate.

Already underway prior to the pandemic, the effects of COVID-19 illustrated the need for greater mental health services. Even among those already experiencing mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Deputy Director of Tulare County Behavioral Health Natalie Bolin said they have seen a “huge uptick” in crisis-related cases. 

Bolin is hopeful for the partnership with Recovery Innovations. In addition to the focus groups, the consulting group is expected to examine the entire crisis model and look at how the police department and hospitals collaborate and come back with future recommendations, “We’re really anxious to hear what their recommendations are,” Bolin said. 

Behavioral Health Services has a 24 hour, 7 day a week program that works closely with law enforcement, local hospitals and jails according to Bolin, “Tulare County has a really robust community and we collaborate really well together. I think that is one of our strong points.”

Bolin explained that it will take several years to get where they need to be. All aspects could be enhanced, and preventing individuals from reaching crisis is the ultimate goal because there is not a designated mental health treatment facility for children in the county. The lack of facilities forces children in crisis to go to Fresno or Bakersfield. 

According to Bolin, within the past two years 30% of children that are placed on a 5585 hold, a mental health hold for children, had never had any mental health services prior to that crisis. “A psychiatric hospitalization is a horrible way to enter the mental health system. It’s really traumatizing,” Bolin said. 

Bolin explained that their hope is to work on more outreach programs and educating children and the best place to start that is in schools. Behavioral Health has several partnerships within the education system including with the Tulare County Office of Education. There are five children’s services within the county: Tulare Youth Services, Visalia Youth Services, Dinuba Youth Services, Porterville Youth Services and Sequoia Youth Services. They all provide children’s mental health services and each of them have good relationships with the school districts within their particular region. This allows for good communication throughout the county.

Last year, Tulare County’s Behavioral Health Crisis Team responded to over 5,600 calls from individuals experiencing crisis and seeking help, which according to Bolin is a 12.8% increase from the year prior. The number of psychiatric hospitalizations grew dramatically to 1,656 cases in 2021. The Tulare County Suicide Prevention Task Force reported 35 suicides in 2021 and 35 in the year prior. A significant number of our community members and families are feeling the impacts, and Tulare County Behavioral Health is seeking to take action.

The last focus group will take place on April 21.

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