Valley Voices

Fresno County is transforming how it helps people with mental health needs

People with mental illness are getting more help in Fresno County.
People with mental illness are getting more help in Fresno County. Fresno Bee file illustration

May was Mental Health Awareness Month — September has been Suicide Prevention Month. Both are important times to recommit ourselves to our own mental health, the health of our entire community and to the mental health systems that support those who live here, live next door to us, and maybe live with us.

Every day, there are many people working diligently and without much recognition to improve the mental health systems of care in Fresno and Madera counties and across the Valley. Consider this progress from across our community:

Lynne Ashbeck of Valley Children’s Healthcare. Sandie Huber Photography

In partnership with many community leaders and organizations, the Fresno County Department of Behavioral Health, under the leadership of Director Dawan Utecht and her team, is transforming the county’s mental health care delivery network. Here are just a few of the accomplishments over the last few years:

▪ Opened a 16-bed inpatient crisis unit for kids;

▪ Opening a 16-bed crisis residential unit to provide a temporary housing solution;

▪ Transformed the vacant Kingsburg District Hospital into a 66-bed mental health rehabilitation center;

▪ Expanded the Exodus Crisis Stabilization Unit from 12 to 25 beds for adults and from eight to 12 beds for children. In 2017, Exodus had over 9,500 crisis visits from adults and children, many of whom previously would have spent countless hours in our hospital emergency rooms;

▪ Expanded the Multi-Agency Access Program (MAP Point) from the initial location at the Poverello House to nine sites across the county, including one operating in a mobile food truck. The MAP Points, since opening in February in 2015, have served 6,312 individuals, linking them to housing, mental health care, substance abuse services, and more.

▪ Established a rural triage program focused on eastside communities through Kings View Behavioral Health. Working closely with the Selma Police Department, this partnership has saved the department over 300 officer hours in responding to behavioral health calls for service, resulting in savings of nearly $40,000 in the last 12 months alone.

▪ Entered into an agreement with the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools that will ultimately provide behavioral health services at every school in Fresno County.

▪ Established a partnership with the Fresno Police Department to provide behavioral health clinicians as a part of a dedicated unit responding to behavioral health calls for service. This team has responded to 2,286 calls since the launch of this work in late 2017. The Clovis Police Department will initiate a similar clinician/law enforcement partnership later this year.

Emergency Medical ServicesDirector Dan Lynch and a team of hospitals, clinics and community organizations have created a process to more effectively care for those in our community who have relied on the 9-1-1 system as their primary source of physical and behavioral health care. Since the inception of this work, our community has seen an 87 percent reduction in year-over-year calls from individuals who inappropriately access 9-1-1.

Valley Children’s Hospital is working with the Madera County Department of Behavioral Health to improve the process for serving mentally ill kids that come to the hospital emergency room, speeding up the time it takes to get those children to the psychiatric care that they need.

Our community has created the Fresno County Suicide Prevention Collaborative, composed of hospitals, law enforcement, schools, faith- and community-based organizations and others, to create a cross-sector response to and prevention of suicides that occur each year in all parts of our region. (To learn more, visit This collaborative, in just its first year, played an important role in helping all Fresno County school districts to implement new suicide prevention activities required by AB 2246d and held the first Teen Suicide Town Hall, in partnership with KMPH Channel 26, earlier this year. A comprehensive suicide prevention strategic plan was released this month.

Community Conversations, established in 2011 to consider our mental health system of care from every possible sector, continues to be one of the most effective collaboratives in our community. The group has produced amazing results, including the formation of the MAP Point and reaffirmed the idea that the only way we can improve any of these complex systems or change the trajectory of seemingly intractable problems is together. At the same table. At the same time. For as long as it takes.

No one can do this work on their own. It is far from perfect. And we are not finished. But the system of mental health care in our communities gets better with every improvement.

Lynne Ashbeck is the senior vice president of community engagement and population wellness at Valley Children’s Healthcare. She is also a Clovis City Council member and an active volunteer in the community’s mental health work. She can be reached at