Experts discuss mental health during town hall

  • by Ed Walsh, BAR Contributor
  • Wednesday October 21, 2020
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Experts discuss mental health during town hall

California state Senator Scott Wiener hosted an hourlong virtual town hall meeting October 20, focused on mental health problems and substance use, which have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Three experts on mental health and substance use joined Wiener in the forum.

When asked about their impact on the LGBTQ community, panelist Mike Discepola, vice president of behavioral and substance use health at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said the stigma of substance abuse is compounded by blame some face regarding sexual behavior.

"I think one of the biggest issues in the LGBT community always is the stigma and shame toward lots of different behaviors, toward sexual behavior, toward substance abuse and misuse," Discepola said.

Besides Wiener and Discepola, both gay men, the panel included Jason Finau, a mental health supervisor for the City and County of San Francisco, and Le Ondra Clark Harvey, Ph.D., a psychologist and CEO of the California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies.

Wiener touted the importance of Senate Bill 855, which he authored and Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law last month. The law requires insurance companies to cover all medically necessary mental health and addiction needs.

Harvey noted that the pandemic has had a dramatic impact on mental health.

"We know that 45% of adults report that the pandemic has impacted their mental health," the psychologist said, adding that domestic violence and violence overall has increased during the public health crisis.

Harvey said that although telehealth has increased access for many, it doesn't work for everyone.

"For example, when you look at older adults, they may not have the same comfort level using tele-accessing technology and we know it is not indicated for doing therapy with children," Harvey added.

Wiener said that San Francisco is on track to see 700-750 deaths from accidental drug overdoses this year. As of August, the city had recorded 470 accidental fatal drug overdoses. San Francisco recorded 441 overdose deaths for all of last year. By comparison, the city has seen 133 COVID-19 deaths this year.

"More people have died of accidental overdose since January than have died in San Francisco of COVID-19," noted Finau. "That's a great success from the COVID-19 perspective but it actually highlights some of our challenges and opportunities as it relates to how to work with drug users, how to work with folks who have mental health challenges, and some of the inequities and challenges that we have had in the system before COVID-19 happened."

Wiener echoed Finau, adding that he didn't want to say that any good has come from COVID-19, but that it did reveal inequities in the system.

"It's shed a spotlight on every inequity in existence in society and gives us at least that information that we need to try to end those inequities," Wiener said.

The panelists took input from viewers who sent written questions through email or Zoom.

"I am an elderly gay man with a drinking problem and I use cannabis every day," wrote a man in a question that was read by Wiener. "I wish there was something else to help me through this social isolation, but I haven't found anything. What do you recommend?"

Finau said he recommended the San Francisco AIDS Foundation Stonewall Project, a program that is designed to help gay, bi, and trans men with substance abuse.

"And there are many other programs at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, including a program for men who are over 50 that offers social and community activities, but most of those activities right now are Zoom and remote, which offers opportunity challenges to people who don't have access to computers and technology," Finau said.

Wiener noted that the SFAF website is a good resource for events hosted by the over-50 group. He also recommended the Warm Line, for which he was able to secure state funding. The non-emergency peer-to-peer emotional support line can be reached at 1-855-845-7415.

"It's a place just to be able to call and talk to someone who has also had challenges with these issues," Wiener said.

Harvey recommended the Crisis Text Line (741741).

"There's a lot of resources you can utilize during shelter in place, you're probably going to feel most comfortable about using the phone or text," she advised.

For more information on San Francisco AIDS Foundation programs, go to

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