Every day there seems to be another story in the news about the need for more mental health services. More people than ever, for example, are reporting they are feeling bouts of depression, especially since COVID.

Not many Westside residents realize, however, that Merced County has a Westside Behavioral Health Office in Los Banos, which provides a wide range of mental health services to residents of Los Banos, Dos Palos and Santa Nella.

The Los Banos office is located at 40 West G St., Suite C (within a commercial development) and has a direct-line phone number of (209) 710-6100.

I was made aware of the office and the services during a meeting of the Los Banos Rotary Club on Oct. 3, when Christina Martinez, the program manager of the Los Banos Outpatient Clinic, was the featured speaker.

Martinez, who is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), talked about the many services the clinic provides, including adult service of care, children’s service of care, substance use disorder services, community access to recovery services and community services and support.

The services are free to anyone who is covered by Medi-Cal and for a fee on a sliding scale to other Merced County residents. The Los Banos office can also provide individuals with the names of mental health professionals who are in private practice on the Westside.

Merced County residents can call the access program to initiate services in Los Banos. The number to call is (209) 381-6800, extension 3301.  

“We are trying to spread the word about the wide range of services available in our office,” Martinez told the Rotarians, “for both adults and children.”

Within Adult Services of Care (ASOC) in the Los Banos office, an individual can meet with a clinician to address service needs (like a treatment plan, case management or medication), learn coping techniques and get support for progress toward their mental health goals.

The Los Banos office also offers group therapy to provide help regarding life skills, social functioning, grief and loss, trauma and issues related to parenting.

The office also provides access to appropriate medications prescribed by a psychiatrist and offers help for persons with substance-use disorders.

Within Children’s Service of Care (CSOC) the Los Banos office provides services to children and teenagers, often working in tandem with services schools provide to students.

A program called CARS (Community Access to Recovery Services) offers an initial telephone interview and a Point of Entry (POE) clinical assessment to determine the need for services or referrals.

The Los Banos office also provides a wellness center for its clients, to help individuals take positive actions to make their lives better.

Martinez pointed out to Rotarians that many people on the Westside are not aware of the office’s location or the services available, especially after the years when people stayed home due to COVID.

Other people are reluctant to use the services.  “Many people who are experiencing mental health problems still feel the stigma involved in talking about their problems, especially depression,” she said. “We believe we can overcome that stigma and help them achieve better mental health.”

She hopes that more people take advantage of the services her office provides. She asked Rotarians to help spread the word that mental health services are available on the Westside.

Martinez also mentioned the national 988 telephone number available 24  hours a day for anyone experiencing depression or thoughts of suicide. She believes it’s an important service for people in need of help.

Martinez’s talk to the Rotary club came at an appropriate time and for the appropriate group. Rotary International for 2023-24 has placed a global emphasis on mental illness and emotional wellness.

Meanwhile, national news stories continue to report about the extent of mental illness. According to the National Institute of Health, more than one in five adults in the United States live with a mental illness.

Mental health is an even bigger problem for children and teenagers. According to the CDC (the national Center for Disease Control and Prevention) website, “In 2021 more than four in 10 (42 percent) students felt persistently sad or hopeless and nearly one-third (29 percent) experienced poor mental health.

And, the CDC notes, “In 2021, more than one in five (22 percent) students seriously considered attempting suicide and one in 10 (10 percent) attempted suicide.”

These are astounding and troubling statistics, and most Americans are aware of the seriousness of mental illness and the need for mental health services. According to a recent survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, nine out of 10 adults said ​they believed that there’s a mental health crisis in the US today.

All of this points to the importance of Merced County’s Westside Behavioral Health Office in Los Banos. I hope everyone reading this column can help spread the word to family and friends that help is available nearby.

I would even encourage individuals to drive out 40 West G Street and see the location of the office, which isn’t visible from the street.

I also hope more young people will consider going into mental health careers. Currently, there are too few professionals in this country available to help all the people who need mental health help.