On Tuesday, September 1, 2020, Mendocino County’s Behavioral Health Director Doctor Jenine Miller revealed startling statistics to the county’s Board of Supervisors about the state of residents’ mental health in the wake of the pandemic. She said the economic insecurity and isolation are correlated with a dramatic increase in suicide, individuals experiencing anxiety and depression, and a measurable increase in substance use.
Dr. Miller explained that Mendocino County averages 20 suicides per year. Specifically, she said in the entirety of 2019, 23 county residents committed suicide. As of July 30, Dr. Miller said 23 residents had committed suicide and she knew of three more circumstances of suicide during August, bringing the county’s total to 26 in just eight months. She also stated that suicidal ideation has also increased.
Dr. Miller recounted a common refrain she and her staff had heard from Mendocino County residents, “We may be surviving, but we are no longer living.” This sentiment underscores the reality that as Mendocino County navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Miller says a mental health epidemic is also brewing.
Citing studies from across the United States, Dr. Miller asserted that 50% of people claim they are experiencing a mental health or substance abuse condition since the pandemic began. Dr. Miller confirmed Mendocino County’s Behavioral Health staff had seen a marked increase in residents suffering from depression and anxiety. Dr. Miller cited a measurable rise in alcohol sales, pointing towards an increase in substance abuse.
The Wine Industry Advisor corroborates Dr. Miller’s claims stating, “Alcohol grew 18% in off-premise [at-home consumption] channels for the latest week ending 8/22/20, and year-over-year dollar growth trends for the previous week were +18.5%.”
Ultimately, Dr. Miller said, “People are not sure how to cope with the pandemic.”
Mendocino County’s Public Health Officer Dr. Andy Coren addressed county residents’ mental distress in Friday’s COVID-19 update stating, “We need to acknowledge the hardship people are going through.” Dr. Coren said he would soon be meeting with Dr. Miller to consider how to support Mendocino County residents in distress. He emphasized the importance of recognizing “the sacrifice everybody is making.
In the face of these sobering realities, Dr. Miller said Mendocino County Behavioral Health’s ultimate goal is to increase mental health support services to combat this mental health epidemic. September marks Suicide Prevention Month. Dr. Miller said behavioral health would be launching the “Reach Out and Ask the Question” campaign, encouraging residents to break the stigma associated with suicide and ask if someone is feeling suicidal. She said billboards would be displayed on Highway 20 and somewhere in Ukiah to spread the message.
According to Dr. Miller, Behavioral Health is also working towards organizing support groups to help Mendocino County residents build connections and socializing. Dr. Miller said the support groups will be available to the whole community and be offered in English, Spanish, and have some facilitated by and from First Nation groups.
Dr. Miller said one barrier to bolstering mental health services to county residents was the inconsistency in mental health coverage amongst insurance providers. Behavioral health hopes to combat some of that inconsistency by providing the support group services for free, said Dr. Miller.
To compare and contrast Mendocino County’s drastic rise in suicide and mental illness with nearby populations, Humboldt and Trinity County data was sought. Humboldt County’s Public Education Officer Christine Messinger provided a comprehensive data set regarding suicide and overdoses and said, “the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t increased the rate of these deaths.”
Trinity County’s Public Health Nursing Director Marcie Jo Cuziol had a similar message providing data that did not indicate a rise in suicide or overdoses.
The Center for Disease Control states comments or thoughts about suicide — also known as suicidal ideation — can begin small like, “I wish I wasn’t here” or “Nothing matters.” But over time, they can become more explicit and dangerous.
Mendocino County’s Mental Health Service offers a “Warm Line”, which is a non-crisis call line for residents that need help. Residents can call 707-472-2311 to just talk with someone, to ask questions, or to express a need.