An older man lies on his stomach. There’s a large lump on his head. A small baby opossum peeks out from behind it. It’s a strange, fuzzy scene, photographed by the SLO police officers who arrived on scene that April 1 night.
SLO police said he’d been throwing rocks at cars from the roof of a downtown business. Officers were able to subdue the man through “the use of a less-than lethal weapon” according to an April email sent from then-SLO Police Chief Steve Gesell to city department heads. Although, he didn’t specify what exactly that force was.
“He had recently been arrested running naked through downtown, and has numerous police contacts,” Gesell wrote.
The story was one of four Gesell emailed that day. They each detailed contacts between his officers and severely mentally ill subjects. They are short, disturbing narratives of the lives of those at the end of a descent into mental illness. Tragic tales of someone who couldn’t get the help they needed, or possibly refused it.
But even those who do reach out for help could be left waiting, according to a new report from the SLO County grand jury.
The report, titled “We are waiting,” examined adult access to mental health services in the county. Among its findings, the reported stated that up to 45 days could pass before an adult requesting help actually meets with a mental health professional, and up to 60 days before receiving a diagnosis. In that time, the report warns that even a person in a non-life-threatening situation could be at risk.
“Within those 60 days, a person’s condition could escalate to a major health event,” the report states, “leaving the county responsible to provide a higher level of care.”
Adults who suffer from a mental illness and want help have several ways to ask for it in San Luis Obispo County. That includes a website, two phone hotlines, walk-in clinics, and even a nonprofit run “mobile crisis unit” that can be dispatched to provide face-to-face service on a 24-hour basis.
In the most severe cases, 911 or the mobile crisis unit can respond immediately. But those deemed to be suffering in a “non crisis situation” are referred to the county for an assessment. That’s when the waiting begins, according to the grand jury’s report.
The average wait for access to a mental health assessment in the county was between 18 and 45 days, according to the report. After an assessment, that same adult could be waiting up to 14 more days for an actual appointment.
The county’s Mental Health Services Department blamed the delays on a lack of staff, according to the report, which adds that there’s a shortage of qualified professionals, such as psychiatrists and therapists, willing to work within the county’s pay structure when nearby facilities like the California Men’s Colony and Atascadero State Hospital pay them more. Despite the challenge, the county was able to recruit two psychiatrists in 2014, but continues to rely on third-party contractors to fill other such vacancies, according to the report.
Of the grand jury’s many recommendations, foreman Larry Herbst acknowledged that the need for additional staff was one of the most critical.
“If you want to decrease the wait time, then it’s going to be through additional psychiatric support staff,” Herbst told New Times.
Just when, and if, that’s going to happen remains to be seen. The department has up to 60 days to respond the grand jury’s report. The SLO County Board of Supervisors has 90.
County Health Administrator Anne Robin told New Times the department was reviewing and working on their response to the grand jury’s report. Robin said the report was mostly accurate and noted that the department was aware of the issues it raised.
“Nothing in it was a surprise,” Robin said.
Robin said that the county has already been working to address many of the issues raised by the report.
“We’ve already had improvements and cut the wait time in half,” she said.
While the county works on a response to the report, the proposed budget for 2015-2016 shows signs that the county’s trying to address the wait-time concerns. The proposed budget includes a request for more than $605,000 to add six full-time mental health therapists and one metal health program supervisor to help improve capacity and reduce the wait time for treatment services to no more than 14 days. There are also funds requested for a full-time and a half-time health information technician to cut down on wait times for metal health assessments, with the goal of completing 250 to 300 intake assessments for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.
“The proposed budget signals a recognition of that issue,” Herbst said. “But it’s too early to say for sure.”
Staff Writer Chris McGuinness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.