Of the psychiatric patients forced to evacuate from Ventura’s Aurora Vista del Mar psychiatric facility, 10 were Santa Barbara County residents. Of those, there were nine adults and one child. Three were placed in the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility, known as PHF, an involuntary psychiatric lockdown for patients who pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.
Typically, the demand for Santa Barbara’s County PHF far exceeds the 16 beds available, thus necessitating the need to ship patients to out-of-county facilities like Vista del Mar in the first place. According to Suzanne Grimmesey, spokesperson for the county’s Department of Behavioral Wellness, all the Santa Barbara patients at Vista del Mar have been placed elsewhere. Aside from the ones who went to PHF, some went home with their parents, and others were placed in the county’s Crisis Stabilization Unit, which is authorized to hold those in acute crisis for 23 hours or less.
Grimmesey said state oversight agencies have been fully apprised of the county’s response, adding that she does not anticipate any challenges. George Kaufmann, a mental-health advocate with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said that he’d heard reports that one Santa Barbara patient wandered off from the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where Vista del Mar patients were taken, and has not been found since. Grimmesey confirmed the patient remains AWOL and her office has been in contact with their family.
Kaufmann expressed concern that in the wake of the Thomas Fire and the closure of the Ventura facility, family members of Santa Barbara’s psychiatric diaspora will have to travel even farther to visit their loved ones receiving treatment. “This means that a 25- to 100-mile trip for families from Santa Barbara County to visit their hospitalized relative will now be 100-200 miles,” he wrote.
Vista del Mar has provided Santa Barbara County mental-health administrators a crucial, if very expensive, safety valve for those deemed in need of involuntary treatment. In recent years, the demand has been sufficiently intense that Behavioral Wellness administrators have spent up to $20 million more than their budget allows. This year, the contract between Vista del Mar and Santa Barbara County officials expired, and the two sides hit a temporary impasse over the future cost of such treatment. Although a deal was eventually struck, Santa Barbara County is attempting to rein in such costs, begging the broader question — made pointed by the Thomas Fire — of where they will go.