As COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted and state officials point toward a removal of restrictions this summer, Los Angeles County health officials are highlighting the need to address lingering mental health concerns.
The head of the county’s Department of Mental Health, Dr. Jonathan Sherin, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that residents’ fear and inability to exercise control over their lives during the pandemic could have long-term consequences.
“Living with limited agency can be devastating to mental health,” Sherin said.
He acknowledged that the county didn’t have many choices and had to prioritize keeping residents safe.
“I think this board, and (Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer) in particular, did everything we needed to do to save lives,” Sherin said.
Still, the rapidly changing guidance in the face of rising and falling case rates and new scientific data left many people confused.
Sherin said he sometimes surfs early in the morning and would “sometimes see people running double masked with nobody in sight.”
On the flip side, there have been plenty of stories of residents pushing back against rules designed to keep them safe. Sherin said some of the noncompliance was “human beings suffocating emotionally and rebelling as a way of expressing their agency and autonomy.”
As people try to adapt to a new reality and get their lives back on track, Sherin said his department would be doing whatever it can to educate residents about options for addressing their anxieties or other mental health issues. Giving people choices is key to getting to a healthier place, he said.
One change related to the pandemic that Sherin wants to stay in place is the move to telehealth and remote mental health treatment. Even as patients have the opportunity to show up in person, many have chosen to maintain virtual visits.
Sherin said he was pushing for the state to continue reimbursing for such treatment post-pandemic.
“Customer satisfaction has gone up for many,” he said.
He pointed to schools as a good model for choice, as districts offer parents the option for students to return to the classroom, continue learning remotely or participate in a hybrid model.
Supervisor Janice Hahn said she’d like to see disaster service workers act as ombudsmen as some county employees start to move back to their offices rather than working remotely.
“This sort of jumped — at warp speed — our telework, working from home initiative in the county,” Hahn said, “but that also came with some feelings of isolation, and people did miss the socialization of working together.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said it would take time for people to let go of their fears.
“As we reopen, we have a lot of work to do on the mental health side as it relates to just … allowing people to feel comfortable coming back into work or going out, doing things that pre-COVID were the norm … people are afraid,” Barger said.
However, she also said it could be a real opportunity to educate residents and break down the stigma around mental illness.
Sherin will continue to update the board during biweekly meetings, but no specific action was taken Tuesday.