Assessment: Mental health, substance abuse top health-related issues in South Lake Tahoe | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Assessment: Mental health, substance abuse top health-related issues in South Lake Tahoe

Blue Balcita
Tribune Contributor

Mental health and substance abuse were among the top ranked health-related issues in a recent community health assessment.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Mental health and substance abuse are among the top health-related issues in the South Shore community, according to Barton Health's 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment.

The findings are not necessarily a surprise, as those issues have ranked toward the top of the local assessment since it started in 2012. Nor are the problems — often described as a nationwide crisis — unique to Tahoe.

But despite the complexities and the hurdles, local officials say they remain committed to combating the issues through collaborative efforts.

"We do not expect to solve these issues, but we strive to work with the community to continually develop programs that address and mitigate the escalation of these complex issues," Barton Health officials told the Tribune in an email.

Since 2012, the Barton Foundation has provided grants to the community totaling $278,000 for local initiatives to address mental health, medical, and substance abuse care. Some past recipients include the Boys and Girls Club of Lake Tahoe, Lake Tahoe Unified School District, Tahoe Coalition for the Homeless and Tahoe Turning Point.

In the 2018 Community Health Needs Assessment, 57.2 percent of respondents reported that drug substances significantly impact their life, while 22.1 percent said they used opioids in the past year.

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"The commitment remains to focus on substance abuse needs during the Barton Foundation community health grant application," according to Barton Health officials.

Since 2015, the Barton Foundation has allocated $21,500 toward initiatives in the community that are attempting to alleviate substance abuse problems by providing recovery programs, youth prevention programs, and counseling services.

Other organizations and agencies also are focused on the substance abuse issue.

"The city, through the police department, actively supports drug take back efforts, drug drop-off bins, and the drug store project," said Chris Fiore, the city's communication director.

Additionally, more law enforcement agencies around the lake are starting to carry Narcan, a lifesaving drug that reverses the effects of opioids in the case of an overdose, as the Tribune reported in July.

National issues

Mental health and substance abuse in particular are issues of national concern.

Across the U.S., about one out of five adults suffer from a mental health disorder. With the numbers in the 40 millions of adults who suffer from mental health disorders, nearly half of these adults also suffer from a substance abuse disorder, according to The State of Mental Health in America 2018, an annual report released by the nonprofit Mental Health America.

Across the country communities are dealing with extreme abuse of opioids. The problem has become so great in recent years that the federal government declared a public health emergency in 2017 and announced a five-point strategy aimed at combating what the government describes as "the opioid crisis."

Numerous news outlets, including National Geographic, NPR and Outside have reported on the troublesomely high suicide rates in some mountain towns in the West.

"These priorities are not new; each has posed a serious health concern in the community for years. And it is not just South Lake Tahoe," Barton officials said. "Mental health, substance abuse, and access to health care services are nationwide issues that top the community priorities of many health care providers across the country."

At the local level, much is being done to combat mental health and substance abuse issues, according to Jeanne Nelson, president of the El Dorado County chapter of N.A.M.I. (National Alliance on Mental Illness).

"We facilitate a free monthly support group for families that have loved one's living with serious mental illness and commonly substance use disorder," said Nelson. "We teach classes and provide outreach presentations throughout the community — all for free. We are working on rolling out a mini-program for the middle and high school where we share some facts about mental illness then a personal story of recovery by a young adult."

At minimum, 20 percent of the population in South Lake Tahoe suffers from a mental health disorder and 4 percent of the population at minimum suffers from a serious mental health condition, according to N.A.M.I. El Dorado County.

While there are quality resources in the community, those who need them most often struggle to access them, partially due to lack of awareness.

"In South Lake Tahoe people can find quality providers (tele-psychiatry, psychiatry, psychologists, therapists/social workers, group therapy, case management.). However, knowing when and how to find prompt treatment options is not well understood by the community," Nelson said in an email.

According to Barton officials, there is a project in the works to address improved access and care coordination. The goal of the project is to meet the criteria for Patient-Centered Home designation, which "ensures consistency for patients' health care experience, including when and how they receive care," according to Barton.

"Barton Health will continue to provide outreach and free enrollment counseling services to increase insurance coverage for the community through Covered California and Medi-Cal."

Action plan

Additionally, Barton's community health assessment, which is conducted every three years and mandated by the Affordable Care Act, includes a detailed action plan for addressing needs identified by the community.

Over the next three years, Barton plans on providing resources to help maintain a "coordinator" for South Lake Tahoe's behavioral health network. The coordinator would be tasked with improving the care flow system. Barton would also help in seek resources to support the local behavioral health network and coordinate meetings of providers in the network.

Barton also pledges to continue providing improved mental health services, and improve awareness through a series of steps and commitments.

Regarding substance abuse, Barton aims to reduce the amount of narcotics prescribed, in part by exploring pain-treatment alternatives.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services points to the over-prescription of painkillers, which was due in part to assurances from drug makers that the products were not addictive, as a major reason for today's opioid crisis.

Barton also pledges to support prevention programs and existing efforts in the community, including the Drug Free Coalition.

Given the scope of the issues, efforts by Barton and others will assuredly continue past 2021.

"These are nationwide crises that are among the top priorities of health care providers across the country. Because of the breadth, complexity, and persistence of these issues, Barton Heath and the South Lake Tahoe community will likely be focused on them for many years through community collaboration and effort," Barton officials said.

For information on the assessment visit: http://www.bartonhealth.org/communityhealth.