Mental Health Matters

There used to be a time when you couldn’t talk about mental health. It carried a stigma so intense that most suffered in silence. Thankfully, things have changed, as the work of mental health advocates have brought about much progress, and a new environment where we are strongly encouraged to seek help. 

The California Health Care Foundation reported that nearly one in seven California adults experiences a mental illness. Mental illness is among the most common health conditions faced by Californians, and many struggle to carry out basic, daily activities in their lives.

In addition, The Lancet reports that people with mental illness have an increased risk of physical disease, as well as reduced access to adequate health care. 

That’s where people like Merllely Camacho come in. Merllely is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the Behavioral Health Services department at L.A. Care. Through referrals from nurses, case managers and primary care physicians, she works tirelessly to connect L.A. Care Health Plan’s members to mental health and substance use services and resources. She also participates in multi-disciplinary meetings and forums, where she advocates for members and their needs.

“As I grew older, I saw how mental health issues impacted family, friends and my community,” said Merllely. “We have come a long way, as I’ve seen being in the field for 10 years. I’m glad we can have open conversations now with family and peers, and an increase in resources like the expansion of EAP (Employee Assistance Programs) that provide help and support.”

But the increase in help-seeking brings about another challenge: meeting the demand.

The L.A. Times reported that before the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for mental health practitioners was already exceeding the supply. The report stated that many California practitioners were retiring, and master’s programs and medical schools were not turning out enough therapists, psychologists or psychiatrists to replace retirees or meet demand. A 2021 study by Mercer found that California will experience a shortage of 5,000 mental health practitioners by 2026.

Merllely saw first-hand this lack of resources in her work at a community mental health center, where the situation was especially dire. 

“I remember my caseload doubled in just a couple of years in my previous work. My availability to see clients went from a weekly/bi-weekly basis to seeing my clients every four to six weeks.” 

Health care professionals working in the mental health field are invested and dedicated, but burnout can be really quick. “Self-care among providers must also be prioritized,” said Merllely. “As we push for more access to care, we need to push for more staffing, more training, and more funding. There are just not enough of us, and more people are leaving the field. There is a lot of emotional demand and a big turnover rate.”

Merllely is the only Licensed Clinical Social Worker on the behavioral health services team, and has to do 36 hours of training to stay up to date with evidence-based practices, law, and ethics. Merllely has received referrals for trauma or behavioral needs for those as young as three years old to 90 years old – which can be disheartening and challenging even for a trained professional. But it’s all worth it to her.

“This work is very rewarding. It feels great to be able to provide support and be part of a big movement for change.”

Work life/balance is also key to preventing burnout, and it’s one of the factors that brought Merllely to L.A. Care.

“I came to L.A. Care because I heard great things about the company culture and work/life balance. I’m amazed at all the work L.A. Care does for the community, and overall the company’s mission really aligns with my personal values.”

And what message does Merllely have for us? 

“It’s so important to care for our mental health. Find ways to stay connected – phone calls, video calls. The holidays offered a great opportunity to connect to family and friends. But I acknowledge that not all have that support,” she said. “So prioritize self-care – take breaks and slow down as these times can be exhausting. Take the opportunity to create health/life balance. And even make alone time work as well for you as socializing does.”

“Healing is not linear. Sometimes there are setbacks, but it’s important to continue to move forward,” says Merllely. “Mental health matters. There’s no shame is asking for help.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing mental health issues, call or text the crisis hotline at 988. The national 988 Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. You can also call 800-854-7771 to reach the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health.

Learn about L.A. Care’s Behavioral Health Services.