After facing a series of personal tragedies, a High Desert resident needed to talk to someone. A different resident was desperate and in need of help after overdosing on medication. Both picked up the phone and called First Call for Help, a resource hotline in Victorville, which provides a listening ear for those struggling with issues ranging from hunger to suicide.
Shawn Lauser, Alternative Sentencing Program coordinator, received both these calls during her time at First Call for Help. She had the first caller laughing by the end of their conversation, but asked the police to perform a wellness check on the second caller, who refused medical help and hung up the phone.
Through the efforts of Lauser and other volunteers, First Call for Help serves the High Desert community, answering calls on topics ranging from rape to suicide, mental illness and other hardships. While Lauser cannot give legal advice, she and the other volunteers listen to and talk with callers, referring them to other services and intervening as necessary.
According to the San Bernardino County Health Status Profiles 2012, the suicide rate in San Bernardino has climbed since 2005, and is currently higher than the national average. Healthy San Bernardino 2020's goal is to reduce this rate in upcoming years.
The issue is brought into focus this week through the 38th annual National Suicide Prevention Week. Monday was World Suicide Prevention Day, and this year's theme was "Suicide Prevention across the Globe: Strengthening Protective Factors and Instilling Hope."
One local resource Lauser often refers individuals to is Telecare Walk-in Crisis Center (CWIC). In addition, Victor Valley Behavioral Health Clinic handles more serious mental illness cases.
According to Clinical Director Letisha Dixon, CWIC provides stabilization for those struggling with suicidal or homicidal ideation and hallucinations. The center also helps with housing, medical insurance, food and referrals. Dixon notes that the biggest problem facing clients at CWIC is being unable to afford their medications.
When it opened in 2007, the center served around 30 clients per month. In the past five years, that number has increased to 385 clients per month.
At CWIC, some clients walk in voluntarily, while others are brought in by outside agencies or law enforcement. The center also provides counseling over the phone for suicidal clients, keeping them on the line and sending police to do a wellness check, if necessary.
"We do whatever is needed," Dixon explains.
Dixon and Lauser both speak to the prevalence of mental health issues in the area, exacerbated by financial difficulties. Research from the National Association of Sucidiology shows that economic hardship tends to increase suicide rates.
"This is a hard situation. So many people are homeless and hungry," Lauser said. "They get overwhelmed."
Resources like First Call for Help and CWIC are doing their part to prevent suicide and help those with mental health issues, but there are many challenges — including a lack of resources.
Dixon notes that there is only one practicing psychiatrist in the High Desert, and believes that the desert environment and high drug rates makes the area unattractive to mental health practitioners. While there are more resources in the valley, no city buses connect the High Desert with the rest of San Bernardino, cutting many people off from outside resources. CWIC is working to increase the number of doctors in the High Desert and also increase the availability of transportation.
In addition, another challenge when dealing with mental illness is denial, Lauser notes. She believes the effectiveness of care and prevention often depends on the individual.
"If they want the help, they'll get the help," Lauser says of callers. She adds, "I wish I could help them all."