The USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism Data Fellowship provides reporters with training and financial assistance in completing a data-driven investigative health-related story. Fellows undergo a week-long training session and receive grants to delve deeper into their community’s problems.
In my project as a 2021 scholarship holder, I will investigate the long-standing shortage of inpatient acute beds for people in a mental crisis in Santa Barbara County. The stories will be published in early 2022.
With only 16 beds in the Santa Barbara County Mental Health Facility – and no inpatient beds for teenagers – residents are transported as far as San Diego County for access to this sometimes life-threatening care.
Reports by the Santa Barbara District Civil Jury, which date back to at least 2001, repeatedly identify serious gaps in acute inpatient care in the area of mental health.
Santa Barbara County is currently entering into contracts with other counties and agencies to send residents elsewhere when their beds are full, and those contracts cost millions of dollars a year.
In fiscal 2006/07, 392 patients were moved from Santa Barbara County to Vista Del Mar, Ventura County for acute inpatient care, costing the county approximately $ 1.1 million.
How does the institution decide who receives services in the district and who does not?
The district has tried to reduce the demand for inpatient psychiatric acute beds by setting up two crisis stabilization units that offer adults over the age of 18 a maximum of 23 hours of care. The facilities were opened in 2016 and 2018 and care for 8 to 12 patients at the same time.
In 2016, the Department of Behavioral Wellness determined the need for 26 inpatient beds for acute patients in the district. Five years later, it’s still only 16.
The Department of Behavioral Wellness also determined the need for 16 beds in crisis stabilization units in 2016. Five years later there are only eight left.
The shortage of acute care beds in Santa Barbara County has resulted in long emergency rooms for people with mental health problems, millions of dollars in government spending on sending people out of the county, and leaving hundreds of county residents with no local access to these critical mental health services.
While the county has made progress in developing behavioral health care services, a shortage of acute beds remains.
This reporting project for the Data Fellowship 2021 will delve deeper into these questions.
I will be tracking funding to see how much the county is spending on inpatient mental health services, including contracts to send patients to other counties and the barriers and opportunities to expanding services in the county.
The project will also analyze the uptake of psychiatric health facilities and emergency rooms before and after the opening of crisis stabilization units and other facilities to find out how these interventions affected the reduction in the demand for inpatient beds in the PHF and outside facilities.
I will also receive data from the facilities to see how many patients are ineligible for these services and, if so, where they are being referred and what other resources are being made available. This will provide a context about the level of demand and services available for people with mental health crises.
Given the high levels of isolation and loss that characterized the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues are becoming an even bigger problem than before. This solution-oriented project investigates the extent to which the problem of bed shortages exists and what can still be done.
Noozhawk would like to hear from the community about the local bed shortages and other issues with mental health resources offered in Santa Barbara County. You can reach us by email [email protected] or [email protected]