Orange County officials are getting questions about the rollout of a  $2 million mental health publicity and outreach effort, paid for with federal coronavirus relief funds, just as virus counts continue to increase. 

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At a Thursday news conference, officials unveiled three separate publicity efforts aimed at directing vulnerable people to resources, announcing three initiatives, “Help is Here,” along with “Stigma Free OC” and “Be a Friend for Life.”

After reporters asked about costs and details of the program, county officials offered general categories of spending and totals.

Officials noted they would be spending $1.2 million on the “Help is Here” campaign – aimed at funding billboards and other ads in newspapers and broadcast media. They also disclosed that Stigma Free OC program, largely based around websites, would cost $680,0000. Meanwhile, the “Be a Friend,” campaign has a $560,000 budget. 

Officials expressed fears about a rise in suicides among middle-aged males.

“This campaign focuses on middle aged men, which have the highest rates of suicide completion. And so it is a campaign that is using billboards, social media to target middle-aged men to remind them there is hope,” said Dr. Jeffrey Nagel, deputy agency director of Behavioral Health Services at the county Health Care Agency.

Yet when pressed by reporters, officials didn’t have specific local data backing up those concerns. 

“We have not seen in 2020 a rise in the rates or number of deaths by suicide,” Nagel said.

Officials later clarified the campaign is an effort to get ahead of mental health issues the pandemic could cause. 

“We haven’t had a lot of opportunity to talk about the emotional impact. Almost all of us feel the stress of not being able to engage in our normal activities,” said Nagel. 

“So in many ways these campaigns are upstream to try to prevent the deaths,” he said.  

Yet according to a report from the California Department of Public Health, OC’s suicides this year are down by 35.

From March to August last year, 159 people committed suicide. During that same period this year, 124 have taken their own life, according to CPH records. 

Meanwhile, OC is seeing a rise in virus cases. 

Dr. Matt Zahn, director of the Communicable Disease Control Division Orange County at the county Health Care Agency, noted the increases.  

“Certainly the increase in case counts is of a concern,” Zahn said. 

Zahn also said cases are increasing across the country.

“There seems to be some sort of sense of inevitability it’s going to happen over the next few months — it’s possible. But it’s really important, at the same time, we can’t let our guard down,” Zahn said. 

He also said people are experiencing virus fatigue. 

“We’re all aware that the holiday season is rapidly coming upon us here,” Zahn said. “We all think of family gatherings, social gatherings and work. Unfortunately we have to think about those gatherings differently, because there is a risk there.” 

Since the pandemic started, the virus has killed 1,494 people out of 61,112 confirmed OC cases, according to the county Health Care Agency

For context, Orange County has averaged around 20,000 deaths a year since 2016, according to state health data. Of that number, cancer kills over 4,600 people, heart disease kills over 2,800, over 1,400 die from Alzheimer’s disease and strokes kill over 1,300 people. 

According to those same statistics, the flu kills about 543 OC residents annually. 

As of Thursday, 178 people were hospitalized, including 76 in intensive care units. 

Nagel said some of the outreach efforts will target young people and middle-aged men. 

“This whole campaign is to remove barriers to care,” Nagel said. “It’s about humanizing individuals that have mental health.” 

Some of the over $2 million has been spent redoing some websites, building new ones and paying for billboards, officials said Thursday, unable to offer specifics on contracts related to the effort.

Voice of OC has submitted public records requests to better understand the costs, structure and contractors connected to the publicity rollout. 

The websites advertised by the publicity campaign point people to different resources like community mental health clinics spread throughout the county, and various nonprofits that work with mental health. 

Mark Lawrenz, division manager of the Health Care Agency’s Children, Youth and Prevention Behavioral Health Services, said the pandemic and physical distancing may negatively impact people’s mental health. 

“Part of what’s happening during the pandemic is that people who are at risk with existing mental health and substance abuse disorders are even more at risk,” Lawrenz said. 

Middle-aged men are the most at risk, he said. 

“With the middle aged men, we’re looking at our current data, middle aged men have the highest numbers. And we’re concerned with job loss and social isolation will put more at risk,” Lawrenz said. 

Here’s the latest on the virus numbers across Orange County from county data:

Infections | Hospitalizations & Deaths | City-by-City Data | Demographics

 Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio

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