“I’ve been calling around for two years and this is the first time someone explained it to me,” the caller said to the peer navigator.
The anxious resident had finally found someone who could unravel Santa Clara County’s complex behavioral health care system. A system that for most felt like a giant maze. On July 27, that maze became less daunting, with the launch of the county’s Behavioral Health Navigator Program.
The program, brainchild of Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian, was created to help individuals and families find information about mental health and substance use services in the county. Any resident in Santa Clara County can call the behavioral health noncrisis line at 800- 704-0900 and select option 4. A peer navigator will answer and provide personalized assistance and guidance for wellness services and support.
“These individuals have various degrees of experience,” said Alicia Anderson, LCSW, the program manager who helped launch the system. “Some have lived experience, some can relate more by helping families, while some have experience navigating the system.”
These navigators will help break down the confusion barriers for individuals, whether they are covered by Medi-Cal, uninsured, underinsured, or have private insurance. The peer navigators are there to guide the individuals. And even if they can’t participate in a county program because they don’t have Medi-Cal, the navigator can offer a path forward.
That might come in the form of explaining how to receive services through Medi-Cal or helping a person understand early prevention and intervention services or various wellness groups that are available to anyone. The key here is to help with the frustration and confusion, Anderson said.
“First and foremost, if you have questions you can call this number, we won’t leave you stranded,” she said.
Anderson sees the program through a holistic lens. The behavioral health department provides services for those who live in Santa Clara County so it should at least be able to offer direction to those calling for guidance.
The current perception is that you must be on Medi-Cal to receive county services, which is correct, Anderson said. But the county has a bank of resources that people don’t know exist. This is what the navigator program is about—to be a resource and guidance center.
Currently, the three navigators receive up to 30 calls a day. Although they might not know every available resource, they can validate what the caller is experiencing and confirm if the course of action they have taken is correct.
For example, Anderson said confusion can arise as to whether the caller requires specialty care or medical care, such as with autism. Anderson said a significant number of calls come in from parents with children diagnosed with autism. Many parents assume autism falls under behavioral health services. This diagnosis falls under primary care and parents need to work with their family doctors. The navigators are there to explain this and redirect them, or validate their course of action.
“I think sometimes validation can go a long way toward knowing you have taken the right steps,” Anderson said.
Divide and Conquer
The navigator program came into existence as a result of an evidence-based need.
The suicide and crisis team often received dozens of daily calls requesting information, but this was not the best use of their time, Anderson said, and it took away from the crisis counselors’ main focus. These calls were eventually rerouted to a behavioral health community service line. But the core function of the community service lines was to assist with referral placements. It became clear that there needed to be a designated line and team for callers asking specifically about resources.
As 988 was prepping to launch, the county decided to also build out the navigator program and house it within the same building as the crisis and suicide prevention lifeline team. This proximity has proven to be advantageous.
When one caller contacted the navigation line, it became immediately clear that the individual was in crisis, Anderson said. The caller needed to be connected with the crisis line. The navigator was able to stay on the line with the person, as the team worked to connect the caller to a crisis counselor.
This is what Supervisor Simitian had in mind when residents voiced their frustration and struggles with finding services. His goal was to simplify a process that was consistently described as “complicated, confusing, and bureaucratic,” he said.
“What I hear too often is that folks really need a guide—I call it a ‘navigator’—to help them find the right path to treatment, and then stay on it,” he said in a statement. Anderson said the state’s Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), which provides funding for behavioral health services in the county, will look at supporting three additional peer navigators midway through the year.
For those looking for mental health and substance use county resources, the most efficient way to locate this information is by calling the county’s community service line directly, Anderson said.
“Just making that connection and feeling less alone can make all the difference,” she said.
The navigator program, a noncrisis line, is available from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. Monday through Friday. Call 800-704-0900 and select option 4.
To learn more about Santa Clara County’s Behavioral Health Navigator Program, click here.