Mental health challenges tackled: South Lake Tahoe agencies lead charge for expanded services |

Mental health challenges tackled: South Lake Tahoe agencies lead charge for expanded services

Jack Barnwell
El Dorado County Mental Health is one of several organizations that offer help for South Lake Tahoe patients who have mental health conditions.
Jack Barnwell / Tahoe Daily Tribune |

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — People with mental health needs in South Lake Tahoe continue to face challenges, including access to medical care. Numerous groups are attempting to change that.

Local agencies addressed community needs during a mental health forum at South Tahoe High School on Thursday, Oct. 1. Topics included updated target goals and accomplishments from Barton Health, El Dorado County, and Lake Tahoe Unified School District.

The forum, launched in March, acts as a focal point for dozens of providers to help South Lake Tahoe’s mental health needs.

“We needed to lift our community out of local mindsets and connect to these other groups and resources,” said Michael Ward, the forum’s facilitator.

Barton Health

Barton Health added services to tackle South Lake Tahoe’s mental health needs, according to community relations manager Leanne Wagoner.

This included additional staff and substance abuse programs, especially for patients that don’t have private medical insurance and suffer from minor-to-moderate mental health issues.

“We have two clinicians to service people that have Medi-Cal,” Wagoner said. “Before Barton stepped in, there wasn’t anyone who serviced that need.”

Another upcoming resource includes an updated services directory.

“We are publishing a new resource guide, which has doubled the number of mental health resources prior to the last few years,” Wagoner said.

Barton Health also facilitates monthly meetings to keep the momentum rolling and focus on collaborative efforts, both inside and outside the community.

Lake Tahoe Unified School District

Lake Tahoe Unified School District, which has 3,988 students enrolled for the 2015-16 year, recently hired new intervention counseling staff across all of its school sites.

According to district superintendent James Tarwater, approximately 60 percent of students are at or below the poverty line, which can create mental stress. Other mental health or stress issues include maintaining high academic standards in order to get admitted into a California university.

“It all tracks back to poverty and we’re stepping up to help,” Tarwater said at the forum. “These kids need our support.”

He said there was a need, especially at South Tahoe Middle School and South Tahoe High School.

Counselors keep tabs on students who show concerning behavior and provide intervention or crisis support.

In addition to counseling programs, Tarwater said organizations like Tahoe Turning Point and Tahoe Youth and Family Services, have stepped in to provide additional support.

“They can provide additional support that we can’t and they have an ‘in’ with the school district,” Tarwater said.

El Dorado County

El Dorado County Mental Health launched one transitional house in South Lake Tahoe over the summer.

“The house is for our highest-needs clients,” said Sabrina Owen, program manager for the county’s South Lake Tahoe mental health office. The house helps mental health patients adjust to the outside world, including assistance with proper medication and day-to-day activities like shopping.

Owen said El Dorado County is setting up a second South Lake Tahoe house to help high-risk mental health patients with arrest records. It will be staffed around the clock and is funded by a grant. The Barton Foundation helped furnish both houses along with other community organizations.

In addition to the transition houses, El Dorado County also provides mental health counseling and educational videos. Resources like the South Lake Tahoe chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness provide support classes for families and caretakers of those living with mental health issues.


Despite a lot of ground made on addressing South Lake Tahoe’s mental health needs, facilitators still see challenges.

Owen said El Dorado County as a whole has more incidents of mental health issues than California or the nation. South Lake Tahoe in particular has a significant drug abuse problem, which can contribute to mental health problems.

“We need to take a look at that problem as a community,” Owen said.

Another goal, Owen said, includes identifying treatment gaps for patients identified with mild and moderate mental health needs.

“Tahoe Youth and Family is stepping up to the plate to help with those services,” Owen said.

Wagoner, with Barton Health, said coordination between a police department, an ambulance company, a holding facility and psychiatrist could be complex, especially when the nearest area is in Placerville.

“I think we still struggle with that because we don’t have the right facilities in South Lake Tahoe,” Wagoner said.

Barton Health improved that problem when it worked with other organizations to allow transfer of mental health patients across state lines to Nevada.

“There is definitely room for improvement in the level of services we can provide,” Wagoner said.

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