At the onset of the first COVID-19 lockdown, physical health was top of mind. Knowing so little about the novel coronavirus, and witnessing waves of devastation across the globe, then in our county, we wondered: How do we stay healthy? How do we protect families and loved ones from the virus? How do we ensure our most vulnerable populations – our seniors, our frontline workers and first responders – stay safe?
The overwhelming trauma of the pandemic – now nearly 1 million lives lost in the United States, prolonged periods of isolation, lost jobs and lost livelihoods – in many cases exacerbated effects for those already experiencing mental illness, and also brought on mental health issues to those who had not experienced them previously.
In recent months, I have been particularly mindful, in the wake of news reports from recent studies as well as anecdotal information I have heard throughout our community, of the mental health toll taken on our youth. While necessary to protect our students, their families, and teachers and staff, school closures and the accompanying lack of in-person activities and social interactions were nevertheless challenging for young people and families in our community and beyond.
Clearly, this collective trauma is occurring on a national and international scale, and we feel impacts locally as well. Sonoma County youth, in the last five years in particular, have endured an incredible amount of stress, loss, and trauma: devastating wildfires and floods, school days lost to smoke events and power shutdowns, and, of course, a global pandemic. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General warned of an oncoming youth mental health crisis, a trend that began prior to the pandemic and exacerbated by it . Such trends include increases in adolescents reporting having a major depressive episode; increases in emergency room visits by children and adolescents for anxiety, mood disorders and self-harm; and increased suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention observed over a period from 2007-2019 .
Recently, I met with representatives from Sonoma Valley organizations including RISK, Hanna Boys Center, La Luz Center, Sonoma Valley Community Health Center, and many more, who have started a collective to collaborate towards identifying gaps in mental health services, with a focus on youth. In identifying these gaps in the Sonoma Valley, the groups are sharing information, resources, and expertise across sectors. While they have only been meeting for a few months, I am inspired by their work and their commitment to working from trauma-informed practices to reach all kinds of youth and their family with a wide range of services.
On December 2021 the Board of Supervisors approved nearly $40m in ARPA funding for Community Investments in Negative Economic Impacts on Individuals and Households and Disparities in Public Health Outcomes. The County received 78 eligible proposals totaling $172,295,212; clearly not all proposals could be funded. The funding requests were grouped by category – Assistance to Workers, Childcare, Disaster Response, Educational Disparities, Financial Assistance, Food Assistance, Housing and Shelter, Mental Health and Small Business and Nonprofit; and 33 community members evaluated the proposals. The recently updated Portrait of Sonoma was used as an important criterion for addressing service gaps and disparity of income and human conditions.
Social Advocates for Youth (SAY), which provides some services in the Schools, Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance and the Sonoma Valley Mental Health Collective (with 17 different organizations in Sonoma Valley) submitted proposals for consideration. The only organization providing services in Sonoma Valley recommended for funding at the May 24th meeting of the Board of Supervisors is the SAY proposal for $728.399 for continuing services in SV Unified School District and another district to be determined). Ceres and Food for Thought do provide some meals for clients in the Valley as well.
The Sonoma Valley Mental Health Collective, with Hanna Boys Center as the project lead, collaborated over the past weeks to develop a multi-year proposal totaling $5,470,606 – with services proposed by La Luz Center, SV Health Center, SV Hospital, R.I.S.K., Boys & Girls Club, Hanna Boys Center, SOS, HASonoma, SV Schools, Community Center and Mentoring Alliance, among others.
This collaboration is unique in Sonoma Valley. The Valley is rich with service providers each providing services to small parts of our culturally rich population; but this is the first time that our Community Based Organizations have stepped up to the plate in developing a collaborative approach in applying for funding from the County. We need to celebrate and thank all those organizations working together – a significant outcome from the community approach applied during the pandemic over the past two years.
“Hidden in Plain Sight” was published by The Sonoma Valley Fund in 2017, pointing out the need for services by Sonoma Valley and documenting how the charitable sector served the Valley well, but noted that there seemed to be an absence of services delivered or funded by the County in the Valley. Although a number of communities in the Sonoma Valley were ranked very low in terms of human condition in the updated Portrait of Sonoma, the County apparently still does not yet grasp the true gap in services needed by Valley residents and services provided, especially for Mental Health.
SAY is providing some support in the schools; but other mental health proposals were recommended for ARPA funding in Cloverdale ($490,036), Guerneville Schools ($570,000), Community Action Partnership funding some services at Hanna Institute ($3m), Positive Images ($656,260), West County Community Services ($700,000), Sonoma County Black Forum ($574,200), Nuestra Communidad ($433,000) – all great organizations providing important services to community members in the County. But none are providing the diverse services proposed by Sonoma Valley Mental Health Collective, and no organization located in Sonoma Valley has been recommended for funding any of the programs.
Perhaps it is time for the City of Sonoma and some of the unincorporated areas of Sonoma Valley to begin serious conversations about Shared Services, Shared Governance or Annexation. Maybe then the County will pay closer attention and respect to a larger incorporated city in Southeast Sonoma County and provide services needed by the residents of the Valley.
While the availability of vaccines, the lifting of mask mandates, and other developments give us reasons for hope in this third year of the pandemic, we would be naïve to think that COVID-19 is gone for good, or that its impact on our collective mental health will vanish either. The pandemic will have impacts that reverberate for years to come, and it is important that we talk about it. I am humbled by the honesty and bravery of our community members, and our youth in particular, who share their stories, and I am devastated by what I hear about the impact they have already endured. But I applaud and celebrate how Sonoma Valley residents, health care providers, services providers, businesses, schools and the City of Sonoma came together to share information and work to ensure that services and needs were addressed during the pandemic. We have a long road ahead of us, and I am committed to doing whatever I can to support mental health services and other critical services in our Valley and our county.