At a holiday party in December 2014, Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian was pulled aside by a friend and asked a very simple question: Why are there no inpatient psychiatric beds for children and adolescents in mental health crisis in Santa Clara County?
Even though Simitian had been serving in public office for ten years, he thought that can’t be right, until he discovered it was the absolute truth.
Simitian said, “That was undeniably wrong in so many ways.”
He learned children in crisis had to travel hundreds of miles to receive care. They had to leave families, friends, and mental health providers behind due to the lack of services in their own community. For Simitian, “this was therapeutically unsound.”
He was determined to change what never should have been and his efforts were unwavering. Along the way, he picked up allies including Supervisors Cindy Chavez, Susan Ellenberg, and Otto Lee. He and the other supervisors heard from parents attending board meetings who explained the challenges they endured dealing with a broken mental health care system. How their children were transported alone to facilities in Vallejo, Sacramento, and Santa Rosa for needed treatment.
There were false starts after the project was approved in 2017, and during that time 689 youth continued to travel far away for crisis care. Now, nine years later, shovels are finally going in the ground and all who fought for this life-saving facility no longer have to imagine the possibility.
Santa Clara County will have the first countywide inpatient psychiatric facility for children and adolescents. The 207,000-square-foot behavioral health unit is estimated to cost $422 million. The facility will include 77 beds: 14 beds for children, 21 beds for adolescents, and a separate, secure section with 42 beds for adults. A pharmacy and new parking structure are also part of the design. The behavioral health wing is slated to come online in fall 2025.
The children and adolescent part of the facility will provide emergency psychiatric services and mental health urgent care. A skyway will also be integrated into the design to enable a child who might need neurological or medical care to have access to those services. Chavez advocated for this after a parent explained that a health crisis might mirror a psychiatric problem but its origins may actually be physical not psychiatric. Chavez said with an integrated approach to services patient care will not be siloed. There will be one system available for all health care needs.
NAMI-Santa Clara County Executive Director Rovina Nimbalkar said this will serve a critical mental health need in the South Bay.
“This new center provides something that NAMI’s members have long looked forward to — easier access to life-changing services. Now youth can get the help they need close to home, close to support networks.”
For Ellenberg seeing the shovels about to go into the ground was an emotional moment. As a supervisor she and her colleague Lee declared a mental health emergency in the county in 2022, but the supervisor is also a parent who found herself in need of mental health services for one of her children and was shocked to learn there were limited resources.
“I had no options during that time,” she said. Eventually, Ellenberg found help but it was a painful awakening.
Ellenberg understood on a visceral level how difficult the road is for families in the midst of a mental health crisis. She knows that this facility is a key piece of care in the county, a missing piece that is long overdue.
“Today is an exciting and encouraging milestone,” she said. “This will be an absolute boon to some of the county’s most vulnerable young people.”