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BREAKDOWN – Part III: Reversing the Stigma

The more you learn about the breakdown in the mental health care system, the more intractable of a crisis it may seem. But not only are there people working to address the big picture problems, there are also individuals demonstrating that people with mental health challenges can and do lead fulfilling, happy lives. These are their stories of hope.

The stigma surrounding mental health is a giant, but San Diegans from all different walks are teaming up to break it down. In Part III of NBC 7's BREAKDOWN, survivors, advocates and elected officials share their strategies for winning the fight.

Watch parts I and II here.


Behavioral Health Court

In the hallway of San Diego Superior Court, Casondra Pimentel showed off her Certificate of Completion. It was graduation day in Department 1203. She was one of a handful of people who had completed the requirements of the Behavioral Health Court.

“This program was there through everything and gave me the necessary steps and tools, and I've been blessed ever since I've been in this program for two years,” Pimentel said.

“The mission of Behavioral Health Court is to take people that have serious mental illnesses and divert them from the prison system, from the jail system,” explained Superior Court Judge Cindy Davis.

Behavioral Health Court focuses on people who have already entered pleas to felonies and misdemeanors. Instead of putting them behind bars, the court matches them with group homes, and helps them stabilize their medications and look for jobs. After about a year and half, if they’re successful, the judge can reduce or totally dismiss their charges. Then, participants "graduate."

Pimentel said she was in a dark place when her grandmother died. She didn’t want to take her medication for mental illness and instead, would self-medicate with alcohol.

“A lot of it had to do with the feelings that I was feeling, because of my mental state,” she explained. “I didn't want to feel that anymore. I didn't want to, I didn't want to live at one point, you know what I mean?”

San Diegans can click here for a list of mental health resources available in the region.

A big part of Pimentel’s motivation for turning her life around was regaining custody of her 6-year-old son. 

Tamika Edwards is also a graduate of the Behavioral Health Court program.

“This program is wonderful. It helps you do that and they give you all the steps. They give you all the necessities to where you can change your life, and that's what I did. I changed my life,” Edwards said.

Edwards said a “mental episode breakdown” led to her arrest for residential burglary.

“I just was overwhelmed the whole time I've spent, isolated in jail,” she said.

Edwards’ lawyer found the Behavioral Health Court program for her and she said she loved every minute of it.

“This is what we should be doing with people. This is how we're going to rehabilitate people and actually solve problems long term, rather than just cycling them through over and over again in the criminal justice system,” Judge Davis said.

Photos: The Faces of NBC 7 ‘s ‘BREAKDOWN'

Recovery International

The peer-led self help model was founded in 1937 by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Abraham Low. It uses a cognitive-behavioral training system that helps people develop skills to lead more productive lives.

One man at a Recovery International meeting told NBC 7 the sessions resonate with him because he hears from other people experiencing the same struggles, and learns tools to help him deal with them on his own. 

Lisa Garcia is a project manager with Recovery International, but she’s more of a cheerleader when it's time to run its meetings. 

Garcia’s enthusiasm for helping Recovery International members stems from her years of experience living with mental health challenges. 

We didn't ask for this. I certainly wasn't the one that asked that I was the one in the family to have illness.

Lisa Garcia, Project Manager with Recovery International

Garcia, a single mom of two boys, worked as a catering director. She said when her mother died, it just became too much.

“For whatever reason, it was just too much,” she said. ”I got to a certain age and just couldn’t do it anymore.”

When she advocates for people with mental health, she tells them, “You might feel helpless, but there are no hopeless cases. You can get well.”

And to those on the outside trying to understand what it’s like to live with mental health challenges, Garcia says, “Be supportive. Be kind. Be loving.”

San Diego County Reform Efforts to Watch

Mental health challenges and substance abuse have been rising, and now it's time we rise to meet the challenge.

County Board of Supervisors Chair Nathan Fletcher during the 2021 State of the County address.

San Diego County leaders are taking steps to try to address the mental health care crisis.

  • A Mobile Crisis Response Team (MCRT) pilot program has been deployed in the North County. People can call a crisis hotline, instead of 911. The (MCRT) responds instead of law enforcement as long as there is no threat of violence. The hope is to expand that countywide in 2021.
  • County leaders also want to build four Behavioral Health Hubs to help break the cycle of crisis care. The first care facility is set to be built in Hillcrest. While the site of the Hillcrest hub has been prepped, including demolition of an old building,there is still no date for when that hub,  or the other three, will be built..
  • County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said the county also wants to build a pipeline of mental health care workers. However, there is a big challenge in finding these workers because it's an extremely stressful career that often pays little.

De-escalation Training

San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan created a “Blueprint For Mental Health Reform” in 2019. As part of that effort, the DA’s Office is putting  $1.5 million toward de-escalation training for law enforcement.

There are more than 54,000 calls involving a mental health issue every year in San Diego County.

“The goal is to not wait for the crisis to happen, but to have systems that can properly and effectively, and compassionately deal with it along the way,” Stephan told NBC 7.  

The de-escalation training involves live drills, as well as a simulator called the Milo Range Theater System.

“The more tools we can give them to better manage, better slow down, better deal with it, the better outcomes we have,” explained Wes Albers, the community liaison for the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, which leads the training.

The training is all about active listening, empathy, making a connection and slowing things down, according to Albers

The goal is to train every law enforcement officer in San Diego County.

Do you or your family need help? There are resources standing by. NBC 7 has put together a list of organizations in San Diego County that are there for you. To learn more, click here.

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