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Civic Life

$800K federal grant bolsters county efforts to prevent domestic violence-related suicide

With Santa Cruz County’s suicide rate around 50% higher than the state average, the county will use the federal funds to collaborate with local partners to expand on services, including emergency housing assistance and counseling.

Santa Cruz County has a higher per-capita rate of suicide than California overall, but a recent grant to assist in preventing these deaths aims to reverse that trend, specifically among those facing domestic violence issues.

Last week, the county’s Behavioral Health Division announced it had received an $800,000 grant from the U.S. Health and Human Services Administration to launch the “Building Hope & Safety-Santa Cruz” project to address the issue.

A 2019 report on the issue from the county found Santa Cruz’s suicide rate to be 16.4 per 100,000, compared to the state average of 10.7.

Cassandra Eslami will lead the 16-month grant project, building on her work in the county’s formation of the Suicide Prevention Task Force in September 2018. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eslami and the other members of the task force saw the need for more crisis management services, especially for those at-risk of suicide due to issues surrounding domestic violence.

“Throughout the pandemic, we have seen an increase in call volume for people experiencing psychiatric crises,” she said.

Eslami said her team had originally applied for the funding when it opened in May 2020 and was told, without explanation, that the county was not eligible. But in September, the federal agency reconsidered the grant application, and awarded Santa Cruz the funds.

With the funding, the county will offer services including emergency housing assistance, counseling, outreach, behavioral health resource pocket guides, and a public education campaign.

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Kalyne Foster Renda, co-executive director of Watsonville’s Monarch Services, said her agency has seen significant increases in the needs for its services over the past year-plus. Since spring 2020, Monarch has received a 90% increase in domestic violence calls to the crisis line, 130% increase in individuals coming in for services, and a 250% increase in the need for shelter services.

Since starting with Monarch 11 years ago, Foster Renda also noted that she had never seen as many femicides; the county lost five women to what police say were domestic violence-related killings from September 2020 to last month.

“Folks aren’t necessarily experiencing domestic violence in their partnerships for the first time, but the severity and frequency of the abuse they’re experiencing has increased dramatically,” she said. “We’re also seeing the mental health effects of basically being isolated. During COVID, there was such a sense of isolation.”

Kalyne Foster Renda.
(Jessica Pasko, Special to Lookout)

Foster Renda said the agency, among other services, supports its clients with groceries, transportation, medical care and clothing. She said of that budget, Monarch has already spent more than half for the current fiscal year, which runs until June 2022. She said she expects Monarch will receive some of the grant money to continue this and other parts of its mission, but doesn’t know the details yet.

“Having this partnership wrap services around behavioral health, interventions and support will be a wonderful and intentional plan,” she said. “It’s really going to strengthen our partnership and create better relationships with clients.”

For this project, Eslami and the county will work with Columbia University on the Columbia-Suicide Severity Rating Scale to better assess suicide ideation behaviors and create standardized plans for local crisis providers. She believes this grant will help lift the pillars of prevention, intervention and “postvention” — supporting loved ones after a suicide — off the ground.

“We really see this money as having a broad impact and having a large community-wide vision,” she said. “We want people to understand more about mental health and the symptoms that accompany mental health disorders. ... The more work we can do for our community, the better we’re doing as a community to support one another.”


If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call either of the following numbers, or 911 if it is a life-threatening emergency:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
County of Santa Cruz Behavioral Health 24-Hour Access Line: 800-952-2335