Santa Barbara County’s shortage of acute care services for people experiencing a mental health crisis is a pervasive, complex issue that is becoming too difficult to ignore.

Noozhawk launched an investigation to raise awareness about the causes and conditions and to help the community focus on possible solutions.

Read the stories in the series here: 

» Santa Barbara County’s Shortage of Psychiatric Acute Care Beds Leads to Long Waits, ER Holds

» Santa Barbara County Pays Millions to Send Local Mental Health Patients to Faraway Hospitals

» Santa Barbara County Underutilizing Its Highly Anticipated Crisis Stabilization Unit

While advocacy groups and many people in government, public and behavioral health agencies have been working to improve services, there are numerous challenges, many of them exacerbated by the two-plus years of the COVID-19 crisis.

The county has an undersized psychiatric hospital facility for its population and demand for services, according to a state assessment, and people are frequently sent out of county for care — sometimes hundreds of miles away.

Grand jury members have reported on these deficiencies for years, former members told Noozhawk.

Reporting on this series gave Noozhawk reporters and editors a lot of ideas for follow-up stories, and we want to hear suggestions and news tips from readers as well.

We want to report more on what the county is doing to expand inpatient and outpatient mental health services; how health groups are pursuing earlier interventions to reduce demand for inpatient services; how other counties built an adequately sized system that has enough room to take out-of-county patients; and how behavioral health and criminal justice system departments are collaborating to divert mentally ill people from custody.

Behavioral Wellness Director Toni Navarro told the County Board of Supervisors in April that the COVID-19 pandemic has been “quite the PR machine for behavioral health services.”

There are “historically unprecedented levels” of collaboration between behavioral wellness and criminal justice system departments (law enforcement, district attorney, public defender, probation) after decades of having policies and funding kept separate by design, she said.

“For so many decades, people with severe and persistent mental illness have inappropriately ended up in the law enforcement system since the collapse of the state hospital system, and now California is really looking to turn that tide and correct that,” she said. “BeWell will be a huge partner in that with justice.”

County officials committed the money to building and operating a second jail facility, but rejected plans — and $39 million in state construction funding — for a treatment and re-entry complex at the same location, which would house minimum-security people in custody and people with mental health issues.

They balked at the cost: an estimated $2 million per year for 228 beds. The Northern Branch Jail costs about $20 million per year for 376 beds, and that’s in addition to the costs of operating the larger Main Jail on the South Coast.

Readers have sent Noozhawk follow-up questions and suggestions, and expressed their frustrations with the ongoing issue of mental health services in Santa Barbara County, and we want to hear from you, too.

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Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.