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Federal Covid aid has given small boost to Nevada’s underfunded mental health services


While Nevada has long struggled with a widespread lack of mental health resources, the state has recently used more than a million dollars in federal coronavirus aid funds to provide relief to some citizens most at risk from the increased stresses of the pandemic.

The state has funded mental health crisis response teams in both Northern and Southern Nevada, and to combat youth suicide, the state purchased gun and medicine safes, offered training and launched a public relations campaign aimed at prevention.

“More and more, people are now living daily with anxiety and depression because they can’t predict what their future is,” said Robin Reedy, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Nevada, a mental health care advocacy group.

Nevada got national attention for its mental health struggles, after a recent New York Times article highlighted a surge in suicides in the Clark County School District. And while data from the Department of Health and Human Services shows that youth suicides in the state were at a normal level in 2020, with 17 youth suicides last year compared to 16 in 2019, the pandemic has had an undeniable impact on people’s mental health.

Last year, calls to mental health helplines surged, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Disaster Distress Helpline experienced an increase in call volume from 12,000 calls in 2019 to 60,000 in 2020. Call volume from Nevada for the national helpline jumped from 100 calls in 2019 to 400 in 2020, and calls for the Nevada suicide prevention Lifeline increased from 19,000 to 21,000 year over year.

The pandemic has also affected students’ mental health at K-12 schools and Nevada’s colleges. But the state has taken action to combat those challenges.

Using funds received from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the state dedicated $1.65 million to mental health mitigation and youth suicide prevention. Those funds were distributed through the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, with $445,000 allocated for youth suicide prevention and the other $1.2 million split between Northern and Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services to be used as funding for their Mobile Outreach Safety Teams.

Pandemic challenges aside, funding is key to a state in desperate need of help for its mental health services.

Mental Health America, a Virginia-based nonprofit, ranked Nevada last in the country for mental health based on a combination of the state’s prevalence of mental illness, poor access to care and a significant lack of workers in the field. The group also ranked Nevada last for youth mental health in its 2021 report.

“Speaking on the mental health side, I go around saying all the time, ‘we are number 51, we are dead last, and take dead literally.’ When you start talking about pediatric mental health care, I don’t know, can you go lower than 51?” said Reedy.

Misty Vaughan Allen, the state’s suicide prevention coordinator, emphasized that there are a lot of details to understand when considering such rankings. Allen said that the access to lethal means, such as firearms, across the state and the ruralness of Nevada are both contributing factors, while Allen, Reedy, and Mental Health America’s rankings all pointed to a lack of resources as one of the biggest challenges.

Other states in the Intermountain West, including Idaho, Colorado and Utah, also rank near the bottom of mental health rankings. And Allen added that perception of mental health is also an important factor.

“Then you have stigma, the culture in this region. Mental health, suicide carry heavy stigma. And so kind of getting those messages of help seeking or help offering can be a challenge,” said Allen.

Youth suicide prevention

To aid youth suicide prevention efforts, the state has used CARES funds on a wide array of programs that included suicide-focused trainings, awareness campaigns and resources for families.

One of those programs was the Reduce Access to Lethal Means Program, which provides safes and locks for firearms and medications to families.

“That is one of the few proven suicide prevention strategies that exists,” Allen said. “And the goal is really to put space and time between that event that might be a young person [thinking] of suicide and the access to something lethal that they might grab… And a large majority of that CARES funding went to reducing access to lethal means.”

With CARES funding, the Office of Suicide Prevention purchased 226 security safes, which are used for medications and firearms, 360 locks, including trigger locks, padlock and gun locks, and 1,696 Deterra bags, which are used for safe, at-home medication disposal. Those resources were distributed to families through various community partners.

The agency has also tried to increase awareness among families about how to keep their homes safe and how to recognize when a young person is struggling with mental health or with thoughts of suicide.