New Orange County Facility Bridges Mental Health Divide

The Epoch Times
By Jamie Joseph
June 12, 2021

When Dr. Richard Afable set out to address mental health in Orange County, California, he was aiming for a cohesive effort that paired city resources with the surrounding community.

More importantly, he wanted a place where all types of people, of all income levels, would feel comfortable seeking out help, without judgment.

Thus Be Well Orange was born––an all-inclusive campus where people can go to get stabilized from substance abuse, trauma, and other mental health crises. To Afable and his team, Be Well OC is more than just a special place—it’s a movement.

“We have this general prevailing sense of mental illness being something that either poor people have, or some unfortunate individual has or is affected by,” but that’s not always the case, Afable told The Epoch Times.

“Mental health is you achieving your highest potential. If you’re not achieving your highest potential, chances are that you either have mental illness, or you have a substance use disorder.”

Afable said the ultimate goal is to help every single person in the county should they need it.

“Because of COVID-19, the incidence and the prevalence of mood disorders—which is a mental illness—became quite common, much more prevalent than it had been before the pandemic,” he said.

Depression is the most common mood disorder, he said, adding that during the pandemic, the facility saw an increase in children who weren’t able to attend school and adults who lost their jobs.

“Now, they’re suffering a mood disorder, can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, sleeping too much, can’t get anything done,” he said.

The campus, which has 93 beds and can service 100 people daily, is not a temporary housing facility, but rather a place where people can stay for up to 30 days to get stabilized.

Afable said the mission for Be Well is a six-pronged approach: reduce stigma, prevent and act early close treatment gaps and improve access, strengthen crisis response, establish community wellness hubs, and align partners, policies, and programs.

“Be Well campus in Orange is about stabilizing people. So it’s not long-term housing, it’s not assisted housing, it’s not housing at all—it’s about stabilization,” he said.

Continuous Evaluation

Dr. Lauren Brand is director of operations for Be Well OC. She told The Epoch Times that a patient’s treatment at the campus depends on the program they are entering.

“They will get an evaluation by a psychologist or a mental health specialist. They’ll also get an evaluation by a psychiatrist or an addiction medicine specialist. And particularly at the crisis stabilization unit, they also get evaluated by nursing staff that are psychiatric nurses and nurse practitioners,” Brand said. “And then a plan is put together for what’s the best treatment for this person’s individual issue.”

She said people in the program are evaluated continuously, to see whether they’re meeting goals that were set out for them when they arrived.

“As they achieve each of those goals, new goals are set to make sure that someone is still needing the level of care that they’re in, and to make sure that they are actually gaining the skills and the knowledge and the stability that they need for that level.”

There are lots of different types of therapy available to ensure that someone has “mind-body balance,” Brand said, ranging from individual to group or occupational activities. There is also free time.

“We know particularly for clients who have just come out of a mental health crisis that their bodies and brains are pretty exhausted,” she said. “And so they need the therapy, and they need all of the interventions that will help them to learn skills to manage their symptoms. And we also know that they need rest.”

Downtime is built into the schedule, she said, “but we really try to maximize the therapeutic hours” to make use of the time together to create wellness and recovery.

Physical Space

Brand said organizers were mindful of how the facility’s actual physical environment was created because research shows it to be a significant component in therapy. The campus was designed with lots of light and windows, green elements, and outdoor spaces.

“It was designed to enhance the experience of healing and to support recovery, so the campus is very open and airy,” she said. “We’re creating a new experience for those that are entering the building and seeking care, and also for their families.”

Homeless people can get care, even if they have no insurance, she said. Be Well OC works with providers of all types, including shelters and navigation centers, to facilitate transitional, semi-permanent, and permanent housing.

“We will have on-site an individual who works in that arena, who is a specialist in helping people to get housing or to get improved housing, because we know that in order for people to stay stable, they need to be appropriately housed,” Brand said.

“And so it’s really important to us that when someone comes into the campus, if they are not in an ideal housing situation or if they want a better or an improved housing situation, that we have the capacity and ability to help them with that.”

Support From Law Enforcement

Through over 200 private-public partnerships, Be Well has the resources to address the root cause of a mental health crisis without rushing someone out the door. Afable refers to the partnerships as components of the “Be Well movement.”

“We’ve come together in order to transform how mental health services—both mental illness and substance use disorders—are both cared for, provided, as well as received in the community,” said Afable, who is president and chair of the Be Well board.

“We gathered together as many of the necessary stakeholders in order to be sure that this was a community wide effort, and so that’s how the 200 corporations have come together.”

Also located on the campus is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hotline, a confidential telephone service that provides emotional support for people in the middle of a crisis.

Too often, people in the middle of a crisis wind up in jail or in the hospital, which can add to their trauma.

Orange County’s top law enforcement officers support the new initiative. Sheriff Don Barnes said peace officers “were never intended to be the first face of government for addressing mental illness and drug addiction.”

“The Campus will provide much-needed services to properly address these challenges and preserve law enforcement and emergency room resources for their intended purpose,” Barnes said when the campus opened.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer agreed, saying “Justice is doing what is right for the individual.”

“When we help people escape the cycle of the criminal justice system and address the underlying issues that cause them to commit crimes—we are helping create fulfilling lives and safer communities,” he said.

The first Be Well campus launched in the city of Orange in January. But the idea started to take shape years ago, when the Orange County Board of Supervisors formed a Mental Health Ad Hoc Committee to address the issue.

In 2015, Supervisor Lisa Bartlett and Chairman Andrew Do began auditing behavioral and mental health services in the county before the supervisors allocated $16.6 million to the development of the campus. The county contribution was buoyed by additional investments from medical providers, including Kaiser Permanente and Hoag Presbyterian.

At its grand opening, Do said the campus would serve as “a cornerstone in building a world-class system of mental health care and a new reality for our county.”

“COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated mental health struggles within our community, and I am deeply honored to be part of the ongoing endeavor to help ensure Orange County provides vital care to those who need it most,” he added.

The Be Well campus is the first of three planned for the county.

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