There may not be a more mentally trying time in recent memory than the one many residents are experiencing now with the worldwide spread of the COVID-19 virus, the mandates and restrictions imposed by state and county leaders and the economic fallout that is already beginning to hit home.
That’s why, for Riverside County, Mental Health Matters Month is especially important right now.
“Typically in May, we do a lot of community outreach and events, which of course this year with COVID-19, we were prohibited from doing,” Diana A. Brown, manager of administrative services, prevention and early intervention with the Riverside University Health System – Behavioral Health, said. “We knew that not only do we want to continue our mission, which is about bringing awareness to mental health needs and reducing stigma around health-seeking, but we knew with COVID-19 going on, many more families are confronting their own mental wellness and mental health challenges in a way that they’ve never previously had to.
“We wanted to make sure that this information was spread out to a broader audience and really allowed families to get engaged within their own communities and within their own home,” she said.
The county, along with other local municipalities, such as the city of Menifee, has lit up buildings with the color of lime green, the official color of mental health awareness month.
“We have invited family and organizations to color a lime green ribbon, to put it in their window, to chalk on the sidewalk,” Brown said. “Using positive messages, encouraging messages that include the lime green ribbon and ask them to photograph it and post it on their social media pages and hashtag it so we can track and see what’s going on in our county.
“We invite people to go around their neighborhoods and find the lime green and then photograph that, hashtag that, share that. Really generating a community-driven conversation that says it is safe to talk about mental health, that it is safe to ask for help and that we’re all in this together. We want to reduce that stigma that says it’s not just about mental illness or a diagnosis, but it really is about wellness and how we care for ourselves in coping positively with whatever stressors in front of us, whether that be COVID or any other issue that comes our way,” she said.
Activities like the one Brown mentioned above are just a part of the county’s May Is Mental Health Matters month website at http://www.Up2Riverside.org/mental-health-month.
“We developed a calendar of events that really focused on a social media campaign,” Brown said. “Similar to some things families are doing already. We decided to build upon some of those concepts that families are familiar with and bridge it to a conversation about mental health.”
Brown and her colleagues also produce weekly videos distributed through the county’s social media channels to reach out to residents. The video for week two can be viewed by visiting https://youtu.be/hePLILi0Rg0.
Brown said that Riverside County is considered one of the larger counties in the state and as such, it faces unique challenges when it comes to mental health and well-being.
“We have a little bit of everything,” she said. “We have very urban areas, and we’ve got very rural areas. We kind of confront what both large and small counties deal with in terms of geography and access. Even though our large metropolitan areas that are more urban may have more access to services, it’s in more of the rural areas out in the desert where it’s (more difficult to get to services). It’s a little more cumbersome, particularly for families that don’t have their own transportation and they’re relying on public transportation. So those kinds of things make it challenging.”
She said the growing availability of telehealth services for residents is a big deal.
“I think we have an opportunity right now,” Brown said. “We’re learning new ways of providing those services virtually and through telehealth that hopefully will give us a good platform moving forward and provide some additional supports for community members.
“I think that it will provide us an opportunity as we’re moving forward to look at new ways of doing this, ultimately, particularly when we’re talking about mental wellness and positive coping. The crux of it is about connection. How do we help reduce isolation and help people feel connected, connected to their families, connected to their faith, connected to their community, connected to their school? It is a connection that ultimately is the strength of helping people cope and move forward. When we can do that through telehealth and we can do that through virtual platforms and help people be connected, that’s really setting the stage for giving people the resources that they need,” she said.
Brown said the county works with roughly 30 community-based organizations throughout the county to deliver prevention and early intervention services. They all have the ability to provide virtual services now, she said.
“We are getting community members signing up, families getting involved in parenting programs and family-based programs,” Brown said. “Virtually, they’re all home now. They’re accessing. They’re participating in our practices and our programs.
“We have yet to see what that looks like as we’re still in the beginning stages of delivering those things, but we look at outcomes and we look at how the family was coping before, what that looks like when they’ve received our skills,” she said. “And we’ll be able to look at the effectiveness of doing it through these new platforms as opposed to being in person as we have thus far, to be able to really look at that data and see how this has impacted families. We look forward to seeing some of that, but we’re getting a great response from many families throughout the county that are participating in these programs.”
One of the biggest issues emerging from the coronavirus crisis is an increased volume of suicide-related calls and treatments.
“We also support the local suicide prevention crisis lifeline 686-HELP health and the call volume through 686-HELP and 211 definitely shows an increase in mental health distress calls and folks that are looking for connection and support and resources,” Brown said. “We continue to offer the services on virtual platforms in the form of the Take My Hand app that offers a chat that individuals with lived experience are able to talk directly with others that are struggling with mental health challenges and provide that support through a chat room, a chat line.”
Brown reiterated that the 686-HELP line is always available for residents suffering from mental health and well-being to use.
She also said that included in the activities during May are training pertaining to mental health awareness.
“We also have training for suicide prevention,” she said. “That’s one of the other major efforts of prevention and early intervention is addressing suicide. When people are feeling isolated and these emotions are coming up, we want to ensure that as many community members are trained about how to be a helper and look for signs of suicide and how to be able to ask that question, are you having thoughts of suicide? (We are doing that) so that families can help family, friends can help friends and get the support and access to the resources that they need.”
Typically, the county’s trainings are face to face, but for now, they are offering virtual training through the website so that community members can learn the signs of suicide and tactics of suicide prevention. Brown said it is important to keep that work going.
When asked how someone who notices that a loved one might think is struggling, Brown reiterated that “connection is key.”
“If you see someone that you think is having a hard time, to just reach out to them and let them know that you’re noticing that they look like they’re having a hard time and ask if they’re OK and if they’d like to talk,” she said. “Making that initial connection of ‘I’m seeing that you’re struggling, how can I help you? You look bad. Is there something on your mind?’ As the conversation moves forward, we teach people about what sorts of things someone who might be contemplating suicide might be saying or some behaviors that may be coming up.”
Brown said for someone in urgent need of care, the county has three mental health urgent care facilities countywide – located in Riverside, Palm Springs and Perris.
“(Those are available for) anyone, regardless of insurance or socioeconomic status, can go to open 24/7 and request support,” Brown said. “That support may come in conversation and counseling. It may come to be medication support and linkage to more ongoing resources. Those are available for everyone and they are voluntary.”
The county also offers the CARES line at 800-706-7500 for medical beneficiaries through the county department of behavioral health.
When asked what she might say to someone reading this story who might be struggling?
“I would say that you are not alone and that we’re all in this together and asking for help is one of the bravest things that you can do,” Brown said. “And we’re here to help. You can get that in a variety of ways through a full spectrum of services from prevention all the way to a high level of need and there’s something for everyone, and you don’t need to have a mental health diagnosis to get support.”
Jeff Pack can be reached by email at email@example.com.