Treatment for mentally ill returns to South Shore |

Treatment for mentally ill returns to South Shore

Gregory Crofton
Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily Tribune Nancy Harrison at her office in the Douglas County Administration Building.

Nancy Harrison hustled into the Douglas County Administration Building Tuesday morning with the files of her clients on a small luggage cart.

“This is how the mental health department works,” said Harrison, who lives in Genoa but spends a lot of time shuttling between the county’s main office in Minden and its new satellite office at Stateline. “It’s a moveable feast.”

In the last year, Harrison has single-handedly re-established a Douglas County mental health program at the lake, a program shut down in 1992 because of budget constraints. Today Harrison’s program has 75 clients and wants more.

“We’re still hustling for referrals and wanting people to know we are here,” said Harrison, a licensed clinical social worker for 21 years.

Most of her clients come as referrals from places such as Stateline Medical Center, Kingsbury Middle School and Sierra Recovery Center.

“I was just prescribed medication for depression yesterday,” said Tom, 48, of South Lake Tahoe, who requested his real name not be used. “Just the sessions with Nancy have been extremely helpful in getting over the feeling of hopelessness. She’s a very down to earth, very smart and very compassionate person.”

Tom has struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism for 36 years. He has been part of the Sierra Recovery Center’s inpatient treatment program for the last six weeks and has five months of sobriety under his belt. The recovery center referred him to Douglas County’s program.

“The group consensus was that I was trying to deal with my depression my own way by self-medicating,” Tom said. “Now I have a very good counselor and a very good therapist and the combination of those two things give me hope that I can rebuild my life. I lost everything I had worked for when I was in jail. All my possessions were vandalized or stolen.”

Staff at the Stateline Medical Center referred Veronica, 53, of Stateline, to Harrison’s program. Veronica, who also requested that her real name not be used, was a professional ballet dancer in San Francisco for 17 years before mental health issues caused her to turn to alcohol to “kill the pain.”

She ended up homeless then was sent to jail for panhandling. Harrison’s program has helped Veronica stay sober and become eligible to receive disability payments for her bipolar disorder. Today she lives in her own place on Lower Kingsbury Grade, is prescribed four medications and is starting to feel better.

“That place saved my life,” Veronica said. “I find the staff very nurturing and comforting. It gave me hope that I could feel better.”

Mental health issues and drugs and alcohol addiction often become intertwined.

“A large majority coming in for treatment are self-medicating with alcohol and drugs and masking mental health issues,” said Betsy Fedor, executive director at the Sierra Recovery Center. “We are looking forward to expanding our relationship with Douglas County.”

Sierra Recovery Center is licensed to treat residents from California and Nevada. Mental health services are available in California through El Dorado County, but its resources are stretched thin and can only provide treatment for more severe cases.

“The way things are set up with California has been often cumbersome,” Fedor said. “(Douglas’ lake program) now gives us a brand new avenue, a more immediate avenue that gets us in much faster.”

In addition to recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, Harrison, and a psychiatrist who visits once a month to prescribe medication for clients also treats students, couples and families.

Douglas County is on track to receive funding from the Legislature that will allow its mental health program at the lake to move into a larger office, Harrison said. Right now the program is funded through the state’s Rural Clinics Community Mental Health Centers. Clients are treated in an office within the county’s administration building at Stateline.

“Probably around the first of the year we’ll start looking for a building and hire more support staff and more therapists,” Harrison said.

The cost to receive treatment is based on the income and number of dependents of whomever is seeking treatment. Private insurance, Medicare, and Medicaid are also accepted.

“We slide the fee scale for people. Nobody gets turned away,” Harrison said. “We’re able to help everybody – unemployed, homeless, people really down on their luck.”

The El Dorado County Mental Health Department doesn’t have the luxury of accepting just anybody. Since the 1960s counties throughout the state of California have been strapped for funding when it comes to mental health treatment.

“The demand has been much greater than the resources provided,” said Ken Meibert, interim director for El Dorado County Department of Mental Health. “We do the best we can and focus on the most severely mentally ill.”

Severely ill typically means someone who is suicidal or can’t work or function at home, not someone who has “situational” problems.

“We try to make referrals to other agencies that might provide support to them,” Meibert said. “It’s always difficult to tell somebody with mental illness that they don’t meet our target population. But that situation is not unique to El Dorado County. It happens throughout the state.”

But good news is on the horizon. On Tuesday, Californians’ approved a statewide increase in mental health funding through Proposition 63, which passed with 53.4 percent of the vote.

The proposition levies a 1 percent tax on residents with a taxable personal income of more than $1 million. It will provide $275 million in 2005 and then $800 million annually to fund mental health services for children, adults and seniors in the state.

“We’re all just very happy,” Meibert said. “I’m trying to quantify what this will mean for the county right now. We’re going to have to have meetings and focus groups to determine where the money is best to be utilized but it will absolutely have impact on access and treatment to folks that heretofore have been turned away.”

For mental health service in Douglas County, call (775) 782-3671; in El Dorado County, call (530) 573-3251.

– Gregory Crofton can be reached at (530) 542-8045 or by e-mail at

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