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CHAC fights to make therapy affordable to all

Local nonprofit strains to meet unprecedented demand for mental health services

For thousands of North County children and adults, Mountain View's Community Health Awareness Council (CHAC) is far more than a nonprofit -- it's a home-grown effort to patch up a glaring hole in the U.S. health care system.

Whether it's counseling for depression and anxiety, substance abuse treatment or support for adults and children experiencing trauma, CHAC has sought to provide mental health services unattainable to many. Similar services can cost huge sums, are located far away or have long waiting lists, creating barriers that leave many to suffer without help.

CHAC is one of seven nonprofit organizations serving Mountain View residents that benefit from the Voice's annual Holiday Fund. Donations to the fund are divided equally among the nonprofits and are administered by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation at no cost, so 100 percent of contributions go to the recipients.

Providing individual and family therapy on a fairly tight budget has been a tall order, particularly in recent years, said Marsha Deslauriers, CHAC's executive director. Fees are based on a sliding scale and no one is turned away, but demand continues to climb each year. The huge number of families who earn too much to qualify for Medi-Cal but not enough to pay for private practice therapists are particularly vulnerable, with fees that range from $150 to $800 an hour, depending on what they need, Deslauriers said.

"Take substance abuse -- that's a family disease," she said. "Services are not just needed for the victim of the disease but the family, and that can get very expensive. To offer those services to the community here is an important part of the safety net. We're here for everyone."

Although CHAC serves residents of all ages at its headquarters on El Camino Real near downtown, the bulk of the work happens on school campuses throughout the region. A workforce of 80 CHAC therapists -- most of them marriage and family therapists accruing hours needed for their license -- fan out to 34 schools on any given weekday. In the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District, one-on-one support services are held in discrete locations throughout the campuses, tucked into any space available short of broom closets.

The number of children and adolescents served has been going up by a staggering amount. About three years ago, Deslauriers said CHAC was providing counseling sessions for about 5 percent of the student population in those 34 schools. Now that number is approaching 16 percent, or about 3,200 kids.

It's difficult to pin the rise in demand on any given problem, and how much of it simply comes from a reduction in stigma and better education. At least partly responsible, Deslauriers said, is the high-stress culture of Silicon Valley and the constant pressure to measure up, which brings a significant number of clients from families working in high tech.

On the other end of the spectrum, she said, are the residents served by CHAC's Latinx program, which serves hundreds of families each year -- a majority of whom are low-income Spanish-speaking families. These are families who are dealing with problems ranging from neglect, domestic violence, child abuse, divorce, financial stress and homelessness.

Clinicians running the Latinx program told the Voice earlier this year that many of the families in the program qualify for Medi-Cal, but there's an unfamiliarity and uneasiness with government-run programs and a perception that the county-run system doesn't extend into the realm of mental health. As a result, some families decline referrals to outside services until CHAC's Latinx has space for them.

CHAC's roughly $3.7 million budget comes from a mix of fees, contracts with public agencies, grants and donations. The vast majority -- 83 percent -- goes directly toward paying for services. While the nonprofit has traditionally stretched every dollar it can to meet the needs in the community, Deslauriers has made it a goal to make some long-anticipated upgrades to make life easier for CHAC's workforce.

Starting in August, CHAC rolled out its electronic records system, doing away with a slow and unwieldy paper trail covering every facet of case management. The next much-needed improvement could be repairing the roof, which leaked during the storms last week and caused water to trickle and pour into a second-story room used to hold records. Buckets to catch the rainwater were still on the floor on Tuesday, set out beneath exposed wires and fiberglass insulation, preparing for another onslaught of rain.

Additional funding could also allow CHAC to expand its already broad range of services, which includes the Family Resource Center, substance abuse programs -- which fill a special niche in the area, given that they don't require abstinence -- and prevention programs aimed at educating third- and fifth-grade children about sensitive subjects related to emotional self-awareness, bullying and self-harm.

"Our scope of practice is wide," Deslauriers said. "Our goal is to be able to provide access to as many clients as there are calling and walking in for services."

To make a donation or to find out more about the Mountain View Voice Holiday fund, go to siliconvalleycf.org/mvv-holiday-fund.

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