Officials in Orange County, California, have launched three different campaigns to help residents with mental illness or substance abuse issues get the help they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Orange County Health Care Agency (OCHCA) announced that it’s dedicating $2.4 million to programs that target high-risk groups for suicide, such as middle-aged men and alienated youth. The campaigns are designed to help these groups overcome stigmas that keep them from seeking help, and raise awareness of available resources for mental health and substance abuse issues.
“As we deal with working and studying from home due to COVID-19, these stressors have a huge effect on people’s mental health, and it’s important that our residents know that resources are available to them,” said Michelle Steel, chairwoman of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, at a press conference introducing the campaigns on Nov. 5.
Each of the three campaigns—Stigma Free OC, Help Is Here, and Be a Friend for Life—has its own dedicated website. The websites include resources such as suicide help lines, signs of suicide risk, and information about mental illness in multiple languages.
Dr. Jeff Nagel, director of behavioral health services at OCHCA, said that many people hesitate to seek care because of negative perceptions.
“Stigma is a negative attitude that we hold that keeps us from seeking care. It causes us to suffer needlessly because we’re afraid,” he said at the press conference. He challenged the public to go to the Stigma Free OC website and sign a pledge to be “stigma free.”
More than 1,300 people have already made the pledge in Orange County since the website was created one year ago. The website has since been revamped, and the program is being relaunched with the new infusion of funds.
The Help Is Here site focuses on helping middle-aged men, who have the highest rate of suicide completion, said Nagel. He added that recent job losses and increased social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic have raised the risk level within the group.
Meanwhile, Be a Friend for Life targets at-risk youth, who are considered to be at an even higher risk of suicide during the pandemic.
“We know that youth have been impacted by COVID in that they do not have their normal social interactions at school, they don’t get to go to their graduations, the normal markers of adolescence have been suspended, and a lot of these youth do feel stresses,” Nagel said.
“There are communities within the youth that are particularly vulnerable, and this campaign will be reaching out to the LGBTQ population, foster youth, and high achievers, all who show higher rates of suicide.”
Even before the pandemic, the rate of children hospitalized for serious mental illness was increasing. According to Orange County’s 2019 Annual Conditions of Children Report, the hospitalization rate for serious mental illness and substance abuse in the county’s children increased from 16.7 per 10,000 in 2008 to 25.4 per 10,000 in 2017.
Orange County plans to apply $680,000 toward the Stigma Free OC campaign, $1.2 million toward Help Is Here, and $560,000 toward Be a Friend for Life. The money will be partially paid for by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which stipulates that fund money be applied to expenses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic incurred prior to Dec. 30.
“We’re using TV spots, we’re using radio, we’re using some billboards—so that is part of the cost as well,” said Mark Lorenz, head of prevention and intervention at OCHCA.
“All three programs are using both a combination of digital ads, social media, print ads, and for one of the campaigns we’re going to be having some large ads in newspapers.”
The county will also be communicating with high schools and colleges to help reach out to more young people.
More information about the resources available to Orange County residents can be found at StigmaFreeOC.com, HelpIsHereOC.com, and BeAFriendForLife.com.