The ‘wounded healer’ who is helping Santa Cruz County through a time of mental health crisis

Xaloc Cabanes thinks of himself as a "wounded healer."
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Xaloc Cabanes has survived a lot — and applied it, heading Santa Cruz County’s mental health advisory board. His “lived experience” leads the way as society deals with numerous challenges, old and new.

Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.

A Q&A with Xaloc Cabanes

How does one prepare themselves to help guide Santa Cruz County through the treacherous maze of mental health in the post-COVID era?

In the case of self-proclaimed “wounded healer” Xaloc Cabanes, the longtime chair of the county’s mental health advisory board, you just live the hand of life you’re dealt and soak it all in, painful as that often was as a young boy.

Perhaps miraculously, Cabanes — whose first name is pronounced shuh-lock — was able to survive and then use that experience to help advise others on how to get the behavioral health help they also need.

His story begins with the attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the dyslexia, the anxiety, the panic attacks, the domestic abuse, the drug dependency by age 12, the bouts of homelessness soon thereafter and the failed attempt to get sober in a residential treatment program.

That was all unfolding before age 18.

But Cabanes was lucky, if you can call anyone who endured that much strife lucky.

By the time he turned 18, the Los Angeles native had found some support and figured some things out about himself: how he’s wired, how he learns differently than others, that panic attacks are scary but manageable, that psychopharmacology can really help people with his afflictions lead normal lives.

By the time he arrived at Cabrillo College in 1991, and moved on to UC Santa Cruz, Cabanes had enough “lived experience” wisdom coursing through his veins to fuel an entire classroom.

This explains why a quarter-century later, in 2015, the longtime counselor in the Santa Cruz County Office of Education’s alternative education wing, with a degree in clinical psychology from UCSC’s Porter College, was quickly asked to chair the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board only a few months into what would become a seven-year tenure.

“He tries really hard to help educate the board (of supervisors),” said Serg Kagno, the mental health advisory board’s co-chair. “A lot of the people who get on there don’t know what the advisory board is for or much about the behavioral health services offered in the county.”

State law mandates such advisory boards, which are designed to give elected officials the information they need to put support behind certain programs — and also provide feedback to the county’s behavioral health department.

Programs like the recently implemented 988 suicide hotline. The group is also sparking cursory talks about how to augment that system with a countywide 24-hour-per-day mental health crisis response team that doesn’t involve law enforcement.

The state mandates that advisory board members either work in behavioral health or have lived experience — their own or that of family members.

Cabanes, 49, is working on the crisis response issue with fellow board member Jeffrey Arlt, the father of Sean Arlt, who was shot and killed by Santa Cruz Police Department officers while experiencing a mental health crisis at his home on the Westside in 2016.

Working in education and seeing the vulnerability of young people caught amid a fentanyl epidemic, Cabanes is bullish on getting the life-saving drug Narcan into the hands of students so they’re equipped to save a friend if necessary.

“Let’s leave them around school so they might disappear,” he said. “I like removing any obstacles.”

Lookout talked with Cabanes recently to get his thoughts on the county’s current mental health programs and outreach — and how his lived experience makes him uniquely qualified to lead the charge.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: How’d you manage to pull out of your tailspin and survive all you went through?

Xaloc Cabanes: First of all I got to a small school, very much like these alternative schools that I work at, where I could start to understand my dyslexia better. Figuring out that I wasn’t super dumb, but that I just had a different learning style. And that helped me form the building blocks of getting an education and building self-esteem.

Lookout: You knew then that you wanted to use your experiences to help others understand themselves?

Cabanes: Yeah, that was the beginning of me wanting to really be an advocate, what I like to call a “wounded healer.” I could help other people who didn’t necessarily feel like they had a voice, or weren’t in an environment conducive for them to flourish.

Lookout: Was it difficult to get your education?

Cabanes: Once I learned a lot of strategies, workarounds and other ways to pass classes, I started to get it down. Once I transferred to UCSC, it took me like seven years to get my bachelor’s [laughs]. But, you know, I was slowly, methodically working at it. And my thought process at that point was to strengthen my toolbox to help my community. I decided I loved this place so much, I’d do whatever it took to live in Santa Cruz. I found it to be a nurturing environment in which I really thought that I had the potential to thrive.

Lookout: You say your credentials to be on the board are as a “consumer.”

Cabanes: One thing I think I do a good job with for the board is that I pass (the look test) really well. Most people don’t know what’s going on upstairs. I have a wonderful support team for guidance. I have a therapist, I’m able to check in with people regularly and that’s one reason why I’ve been successful in this beautiful environment. This is a town where you can choose to find yourself down at the levee and having a lot of difficulties or where you can find a lot of support. Because of that I’ve been able to really maximize my effort giving back.

Xaloc Cabanes of the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: How have you been able to conquer your afflictions well enough to build a successful career?

Cabanes: If you had told me at 12 or 13, you’re gonna have panic attacks for no reason and feel like you’re gonna die, not be able to breathe and you’re gonna be embarrassed because it’s on a plane or in public … and this neurosis will be with you for the rest of your life, I wouldn’t have been able to continue. But now after trying so many different therapies and breathing exercises, I’m able to reframe it in my head. I’ve got an overly sensitive smoke detector, a highly acute fight-or-flight panic response. How can I reframe that in my mind so that it’s not fear and it’s more excitement? How can I reframe it in my mind so that this is going to be a challenge, not something to run from? And I think we have the strength to do that. Sometimes our biochemistry is off. That’s why it’s so important to realize that psychopharmacology can really be beneficial.

Lookout: What has helped you the most in tamping down your anxiety?

Cabanes: I think it was learning that the brain is a muscle and we can learn to work and exercise that muscle. The more control we can have over it, the better we’ll be. So when you see people who are anxious and then they can go into a quick deep breathing exercise and self-regulate, it’s because they’ve had practice. I see a lot of people looking for mindfulness but I haven’t seen somebody sort of say, OK, here are the basic steps. Here’s the next level and the next level, and how it can be applicable.

Lookout: You’ve said there is talk about Santa Cruz County working with Monterey County to create a crisis center for youth in Watsonville. How important is that?

Cabanes: Huge. For a young person who’s experiencing this kind of trauma to be taken away from your environment, your friends and your family an hour from here and sometimes as far as Sonoma County, that’s not humane. So we’re working on having a residential care facility for youth who are experiencing critical mental health issues to stabilize and I think that’s one of the most important things that we can do right now. We’ve raised about half the money needed for that and I would love to see our community get behind it.

Lookout: You work with kids around here daily. What are the biggest challenges?

Cabanes: We’re so good at tackling the leaves when it’s gone too far when people need to go to the emergency room. Instead let’s start working at the roots. I think that’s something that people like Dr. Faris Sabbah, the [County Office of Education] superintendent, is acutely aware of and really utilizing our school system to be holistically supportive of our students. I really feel that we need to support our young people holistically, not just on a scholastic level.

Lookout: Many people have been wanting a crisis response program like CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon, for years. Are we moving toward that?

Cabanes: In Santa Cruz, we actually have a more detailed response system. However, we always send law enforcement because there have been issues in California where there was a nonviolent person getting a wellness check, and the clinician did not live past that appointment. And so with that, like a lot of American society, we heighten it to the extreme, and you need a law enforcement presence at any call. And behavioral health will only offer it from 8 to 5, so 24-hour mental health response would be awesome. We have those amazing MERTY (Mobile Emergency Response Team for Youth) vans. We had that recent event where someone was going to jump off the highway overpass. We had a great response and there were a lot of silent heroes that day. It would’ve been great to have gotten them more attention for that.

Lookout: So the answer on fentanyl you think is getting Narcan into the hands of our young people?

Cabanes: The reality is we’re losing our young people to fake, pressed Xanax for the most part. That should be a reality check. I tend to go where the numbers are, and if we say more kids are going to live because Narcan is present, I’m on board with that. If we’re going to take the moral high ground and let our children die, I can’t stand for that.

Lookout: Stigma is hard to shake around these topics. Are we getting there?

Cabanes: I think we’re breaking down those walls. That June Cleaver “we have to present in this way” is fading. I think that we’re starting to see it’s detrimental. Everybody’s battling something that none of us know about. We carry so much that we don’t share with each other and it would be really healthy if we did.

The Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board meets once a month, every third Thursday, from 3-5 p.m. Upcoming meeting agendas (such as the one happening Thursday) and minutes, reports and presentations from previous meetings can be found here.