SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - 'Be mindful.' Those two words translate to self-care at a time when each and every one of us is needing that, some more than others.
Most experts agree, the biggest life-changing lesson in a post-pandemic world is the need for a community conversation about mental health.
Two local experts shared the scope of struggles for those living with mental illness across Santa Barbara County.
"I would challenge the parents, the grandparents to really speak to their children and ask them how they're doing," said Will Fuller, Youth & Family Behavioral Program Manger - Family Service Agency of Santa Barbara (FSA). "And, not be afraid if they share something that feels like it's out of their scope of what they can do, because that starts a conversation."
"This is not about socio-economics. It's not about backgrounds. We have a lot of children and young adults who are struggling. And the need's only increasing," said Rachel Steidl, Executive Director of YouthWell. "I'm talking about young people with insurance, young people without insurance. I'm talking about young people with Medi-Cal. I think it's really important for people to understand that we have kids across the sectors who are struggling."
All of Santa Barbara County is seeing a dramatic rise in depression, homelessness, abuse, substance abuse and, more.
Overdose deaths involving opioids or stimulants are up. In south Santa Barbara County, 22 people took their own lives last year. When it comes to Admissions for Service for both Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder, North County ranks tops.
Fuller said FSA delivers 65% of its resources to mid and North County, which includes Santa Maria, Lompoc and communities in the Santa Ynez Valley.
"Our agency recognizes that the North County regions are disproportionately disadvantaged and so the youths that we serve are often dealing with food and housing insecurities and this is compounded by the multi-generational family trauma that they're experiencing."
Fuller said last year, FSA supported more than 28,000 people in North County. Many of the cases involved Transition Age Youth (TAY) -- teens and young adults between the ages of 16 and 25.
He shared that TAY age group is often dealing with the higher levels of acuity; suicidal ideation, risk of early onset psychosis and, a risk of being targeted in Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) -- involving a range of crimes and activities.
Fuller oversees a team of 10 therapists in Lompoc and Santa Maria and called the FSA program "intense."
"The stories that they share about the youth they serve are incredibly heartbreaking and yet these children are resilient."
When asked about the two, current trends he's seeing?
"Suicidal ideation and bullying. Bullying right now is not like it was years ago where it was just confined to school settings. Now, with social media, bullying can follow kids everywhere so kids are having to traverse a minefield of social media at the same time that they're trying to develop."
Fuller said that combination of resilience along with the therapists' passion and dedication really engenders hope and allows for healing.
"Every age group has been impacted differently," said Steidl.
The YouthWell organization focuses on youth (through age 25) and families. Steidl said mental health issues affect everyone from elementary school children through college-aged adults as well as parents and grandparents.
Both Steidl and Fuller blame the pandemic for exacerbating mental health-related problems.
"Socially, a lot of our young people are behind," said Steidl.
She stressed the importance of giving young people and families the tools to manage mental health and to learn "side by side." And, the need for people to feel connected and less alone.
"Just because I'm sad doesn't mean I have depression. Just because I'm feeling anxious today doesn't mean I have an anxiety disorder. As an adolescent, it can be really challenging during this time to navigate that."
It can also be challenging to navigate the need for professional help.
"It's really ok to not have to be in crisis to ask for support," said Steidl. "Whether you're a parent or a young person, to be able to go, 'There are other people who feel this way, I'm not alone in this. There is not something wrong with me.'"
She said there are simple things people can do daily for their mental health and well-being.
"It's being engaged in sports, being engaged in music lessons, things that excite you, things that put you around other people are so important right now. Volunteering is a huge one. And, internships for young people."
Also, getting outdoors each day and, breathing exercises.
"My kids love to tease me when they see me in the car and they'll say, 'You're doing a wellness breath right now, aren't you mom?' 'Yes!' she laughed. 'Because right now this argument is elevating my stress!'"
Both Steidl and Fuller said they're excited about News Channel's new 'Be Mindful' campaign.
"I think it's incredibly exciting," said Fuller. "The fact that you guys are putting it front and center and really giving that forum is gonna, hopefully, continue to expand the conversation and bring people who haven't been part of that conversation, into that space"
"I don't think that we can do enough to talk about this issue. I think what's so important when we talk about mental health and wellness is that we all have it," said Steidl.