Santa Clara County ‘navigators’ tackle mental health crisis
A navigation specialist at the Santa Clara County crisis center. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

For someone in crisis, being able to access assistance is critical. To help, Santa Clara County is striving to connect people with the right services for treatment. 

The Behavioral Health Navigator Program, which launched July 27, offers personalized support by referring people to county and community resources that best fit their needs. The goal of the program is to address challenges people face in navigating the county’s complicated mental health care system.

When a calls comes in to the behavioral health call center, mental health peer support workers—known as navigators—are there to assist. These navigators are individuals with lived experience such as peers, family members or caregivers of someone who has experienced the behavioral health system. They understand the anxious voice on the other end of the line because they have lived it. 

If people are given the wrong information and resources or turned away because their insurance is ineligible, it can prevent them from seeking help, said Alicia Anderson, program manager of access and unplanned services for the county’s behavioral health services department. 

“If the only answer you get is, ‘We only work with Medi-Cal beneficiaries,’ instead of where you can go for help, that’s a big difference,” she told San José Spotlight, adding the beauty of the program is anyone can call regardless of their insurance provider.

The navigator program is the brainchild of Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, who often heard from families that they needed help in finding the right path to treatment. In November 2021, the board of supervisors unanimously supported his proposal.

“People who need mental health help, for themselves, a friend or a family member, are already in a world of hurt,” Simitian said in a statement. “Then they have to confront a system that’s complicated, confusing and bureaucratic.”

Three full time peer navigators knowledgeable about community resources refer clients to services. Three more may be added early next year, Anderson said. 

The navigator team works closely with the behavioral health call center, the 988 suicide and mental health crisis hotline and mobile crisis teams. Two drop-in centers are also available for in-person consultation.

The pandemic exacerbated the need for support. In 2021, more than 40,000 residents accessed the county’s behavioral health system and about 4,500 accessed its addiction and substance use services, a 13% increase over the previous year, according to the county health system.

In January, county officials declared a public health crisis in the region related to mental illness and substance abuse. Compounded by the pandemic, there’s been a dramatic increase in students suffering from severe depression and anxiety. An inadequate number of beds in treatment facilities has led to incarceration rather than mental health support services. The county has since added an outpatient treatment program known as Laura’s Law, which seeks to help those with severe mental illness.

Making a difference

Bruce Copley, director of access and unplanned services for the behavioral health department, told San José Spotlight part of the difficulty people face in seeking mental health support is the stigma and shame attached to these needs. 

He said because the navigators have lived experience, they can share their own stories with callers to bring them out of their shells and help open doors to appropriate services.

Anderson said getting people the right care is crucial. In the past, residents weren’t connected to the right referral due to a complicated phone tree or not being asked deeper questions. If a caller said they needed help with housing, they’d be given a number to call, but a further conversation might have revealed a domestic violence issue, she said. Now navigators spend more time with each caller to better understand the situation.

Although the program focuses on mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention, navigators receive and refer calls regarding domestic violence, medical services and housing to other county services through detailed hand-offs.

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety going to a new service for the first time,” Anderson said. “It’s very different knowing what to expect when you go somewhere versus just having the information about what they provide.”

To contact the Navigator Program, call the Behavioral Health Call Center at (800) 704-0900, option 4. Drop-in centers are located in San Jose at Zephyr Self Help Center, 1075 E. Santa Clara St., or Behavioral Health Urgent Care at 871 Enborg Ct.

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]

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