As COTS’ CEO, each month I take a moment to consider what I want our community to know about our organization and our progress in serving Sonoma County’s homeless. I look forward to sharing these thoughts with you in this Virtual Cup of Coffee – my monthly communique about the business and mission moments of COTS (Committee On The Shelterless). In the Business portion, I will share the nuts and bolts of what we do to serve the homeless – our successes and our challenges. In the Mission Moment, I will share stories about our clients and our wonderful staff who make it all happen. I hope you enjoy it, and I look forward to your feedback.

Please stay safe,

The Urgent Need for More Mental Health Services

For those that exercise or pride themselves on their health, the emphasis is typically physical – running, walking, low cholesterol and blood pressure, and the absence of disease. When talking about health and fitness, we usually don’t talk about mental health, which can be just as debilitating or more than a serious physical ailment. Many of us have family, friends, or know of someone that suffers from mental illness. It could be Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Dual Diagnosis, Depression, Anxiety Disorder, PTSD, or more.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) posts some staggering statistics on mental illness:

  • 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness.
  • 17% of youth (age 6-17) experience a mental health disorder.
  • American adults living with mental illness die an average of 25 years sooner than others, largely due to a treatable condition.
  • 37% of students suffering from mental illness drop out of high school.
  • More than 90% of children who die from suicide suffer from a mental health condition.
  • Serious mental illness costs the U.S. about $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.
  • People with depression have a 40% higher risk of developing cardiovascular and metabolic disease than the general population.

When I look at mental illness and the population that COTS serves – those experiencing homelessness – the numbers are also staggering:

  • 35% suffer from psychiatric/emotional conditions.
  • 75% have experienced some form of trauma.
  • 38% suffer from drug/alcohol abuse.
  • 34% have a history of domestic violence

We know that people with mental illness are at greater risk of homelessness. We also know that the stress of being homeless intensifies mental illness and can exacerbate anxiety, fear, depression, drug use, and more.

Now, as if the fires, national political turmoil, and recession are not enough, we have COVID-19 and its consequences on our mental health. Working from home, job loss, social isolation, grief for the loss of a loved one all add to fear and uncertainty. And even when we get a vaccine, that fear, anxiety, depression will not go away. In fact, decades of underinvestment in mental health and healthcare in general, especially for the poor, were exposed by the consequences of COVID.

This is not doom and gloom. This is our reality and we need more financial investments in our social support services if we are to address growing mental illness in our community.

This Virtual Coffee is dedicated to mental health and what we can do to begin to invest in our community. In this election season, Measure O is on the ballot to ask for tax dollars to invest in more mental health services. I am not here to tell you how to vote. That is not my job. I am here to share what we see every day at COTS with our residents at our adult and family shelter, those we help on the streets, in their cars and RVs, and in encampments who suffer from severe mental health illness – children, adults, veterans, seniors – all experiencing homelessness. We need more financial investments to address mental health.

The monies from Measure O will go toward emergency psychiatric care; mobile support teams that accompany law enforcement on crises intervention calls (we use this at COTS); mental health services at children’s shelters; residential treatment facilities; suicide prevention; mental health services for children, veterans, and seniors; expansion of substance use disorder services; behavioral health services for individuals who are homeless; and so much more. The residents in our shelters and on the streets will benefit greatly from these investments.

As a concerned citizen wanting assurance that these monies will be spent as intended, there will be an Independent Citizens Oversight Committee to provide transparency and fiscal accountability. That works for me and Measure O works for me. In the interest of those experiencing homelessness, I support Measure O.

Until next month,

Chuck Fernandez