By Gillian Burdett
It’s the first of its kind in the country. The Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health launched Mental Health Awareness Month this May with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for its new walk-in peer resource center. The center, located on the ground floor of DMH headquarters at 550 S. Vermont Avenue, is a resource hub for Los Angelenos with mental health challenges.
What makes this program unique is its staff. The center is manned by volunteers and paraprofessionals who have lived with mental illness, creating a supportive, empathetic environment for those seeking help. “When you talk to people out there,” says center volunteer Joseph Cuervas, “you tell your story and they relax a bit.”
“One of the strengths of this particular program is that we are using peers to help those in need to connect in a way that’s welcoming and non-threatening,” says LACDMH Director Dr. Jonathan E. Sherin in a DMH press statement. The center offers access to the latest news on mental health issues and wellness. The comprehensive referral program assists visitors in finding appropriate resources, and center staffers will even help set up appointments. Members of DMH’s Outreach and Triage Bureau are available for urgent cases that require evaluation and intervention.
In addition to mental health services, the center provides assistance with accessing social service programs to meet housing, job training, legal aid and other needs. The inclusion of these services lines up with Director Sherin’s holistic approach to mental health care.
Before taking charge of the LACDMH last fall, Dr. Sherin served as Executive Vice President of Military Communities and Chief Medical Officer at Volunteers of America. Prior to that, he worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Speaking before the House VA Committee in July 2014, Sherin explained that his experience led him to believe addressing issues, such as homelessness and unemployment, is necessary to mitigate mental health challenges.
“Veterans in particular,” Sherin told the Committee, “must receive care in a holistic manner that extends well beyond mental health treatment. Along these lines, the familial relations found in peer-to-peer programs, the community experience provided by a respectable job and the spiritual benefits obtained by engaging in mission-oriented endeavors are salves for disruptions in life that can occur during enlistment, service and separation.” Sherin is bringing this approach, which he finds effective in the veteran population, to the citizens of Los Angeles County.
Earlier this year, Director Sherin toured the Department’s eight service planning areas. He met with staff at community clinics and attended Advisory Committee meetings to gather information about the obstacles clinics faced and resources available in each area. He proposed several ways to improve services, including making care more convenient for clients and ensuring services were linguistically and culturally relevant. The new center takes up these recommendations by emphasizing the need to assist the traditionally underserved populations such as the homeless and non-English speakers.
Sherin hopes visitors to the new peer resource center will find a positive, warm environment and “always leave with something.” The center is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. For more information, call (213)951-1934.