Wellbeing During COVID-19, Just a Phone Call Away

Alejandra Vargas, 2nd-Year UCLA MSW Intern for the Public Partnership Wellbeing Line.

While the pandemic has sharpened our individual focus on our physical health, the crisis within the crisis—the pandemic and calls for social and racial justice amid a recent election—have exacerbated the mental health and wellbeing of many. To put it into perspective, research has indicated that loneliness and extended social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. 

Recognizing the impact of such challenging circumstances on mental health and wellbeing, Los Angeles County recently launched the Public Partnership Wellbeing Line for its employees to offer support, information, and connection to resources as needed—and of course, confidentially to maintain the privacy of callers. Individuals seeking help will be connected to a mental health and wellbeing helpline specialist who is there to offer support through the most difficult of moments.  

Meet Alejandra Vargas, 2nd-Year UCLA MSW Intern, one of the helpline specialists who have been serving the wellness needs of the employees of Los Angeles County.  

Alejandra has been working in the mental health field for 7 years. Her introduction to mental health began as she was completing her bachelor’s degree in Latin American/Latinx Studies. But it wasn’t until she stepped into her role managing a suicide prevention hotline in California’s Central Coast, Alejandra knew she found her niche.  

“A typical day on the Public Partnership Wellbeing Line is one where I am prepared to both provide emotional support and critical resources to LA County employee community members,” said Alejandra. “During calls, I lean in and listen attentively to what our callers are sharing. I can’t rely on body language and movement to connect, so creatively connecting with callers through active listening while being able to hold their experience in a non-judgmental but supportive way is my typical goal.” 

Alejandra participates in this space of support and care to civil servants and other providers seeking to build resiliency and bear witness to much of the hurt that is happening behind closed doors, especially since so many are confined to their homes more than ever before. In bringing resources and relief to callers, the wellbeing helpline specialists are healing and continuing to build community under these isolating circumstances.      

Alejandra’s support is timely and necessary as Angelenos head into a holiday season under the constraints of the pandemic that limit or prevent gatherings entirely in an effort to curb the pandemic’s spread in the winter months.  

Her selflessness to help others is deeply heartfelt and comes from a place of true empathy, as Alejandra has faced her own trials. “As a cancer survivor, being of service in this moment of uncertainty is a personally meaningful undertaking. I have had to sit in the unknown since my diagnosis, so it is a place I know well. And while these are different circumstances, it is a familiar feeling and my source of resiliency that I can pass along to others who I now share this space with,” she said.  

When faced with crisis, continued connection from dedicated staff like Alejandra is not only improving lives—it’s saving them. These impactful conversations are integral to helping individuals cope with incredibly sudden, drastic change.  

“There is a moment in a call—that very initial moment where sometimes a person is hesitant to really open up—and when you provide that person with the space where they can be vulnerable, it shifts. I recognize that vulnerability as a step and action towards courage, and it’s in every single call. There’s a little bit of hesitancy and then they open up. It’s in that one key moment where I know that I’ve provided, or started to provide, that space where a person can tear down those walls and tear down the stigma for themselves just by providing this space,” says Alejandra in describing what drives her to help callers in need.  

The Second District would like to extend special thanks and recognition to Alejandra Vargas and all who support the wellbeing helpline in this unprecedented moment of heightened stress. 


Reimagining Healing and Care at Mark Ridley-Thomas Behavioral Health Center

More than a decade after its closure, the original Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital building has completed its transformation to a new and innovative healthcare facility—as the Mark Ridley-Thomas Behavioral Health Center. In a socially-distanced ribbon cutting, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas—in collaboration with several county partners—inaugurated the state’s first ever licensed Behavior Health Center (BHC) that will provide fully-integrated inpatient, outpatient and supportive services for some of Los Angeles County’s most vulnerable populations.

“Over the last decade, we have transformed the MLK Medical Campus into a center of excellence that provides holistic care for our community,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “With the opening of the Behavioral Health Center, we are bringing to life our intent to establish a cutting-edge continuum of care that promotes mental health, recovery, trauma prevention, rehabilitation, and many other essential wrap-around services that foster long-term wellness for our patients and the community at large. I am tremendously proud of this milestone.”

Where the original Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital once stood, a $335M state-of-the-art facility now stands. The newly renamed Mark Ridley-Thomas Behavioral Center is part of more than one billion dollars invested into the medical campus to transform and support the wellness of surrounding communities. Attendees were able to get an advanced preview of the 500,000-square-foot building that included a new peer resource center, upgraded conference rooms, innovated examination rooms, a new canopy extension, exterior site improvements and more.

“With the County’s $300M plus investment, the BHC will serve the residents of LA County for many years to come with a range of services not found elsewhere. The decision to transform rather than demolish this building has proven to be a very efficient investment of County resources,” said Fesia Davenport, Los Angeles County Acting Chief Executive Officer.

Mark Pestrella, Director of Los Angeles County Public Works agreed, adding, “The transformation of the old hospital is truly astounding. The County’s investment to give life to this amazing building I think is emblematic of the mission the BHC seeks to fulfill. The completion of this transformation into a place of healing and restoration is a poetic outcome for a building that once witnessed tragedy. I am proud of the entire Public Works team and grateful for the Supervisor’s vision that made this happen.”

“Exodus is proud to be a partner in this building providing psychiatric urgent care. Having different levels of behavioral health care available within the same building removes many of the barriers that often deter clients from getting the care that they need,” said Luana Murphy, President and Chief Executive Officer of Exodus Recovery.

As the first of its kind center in the state, the BHC will house more than a half dozen County departments and partners, including clinical and behavioral staff from the Departments of Mental Health, Public Health, Public Works and Health Services. The Departments of Probation and Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services, along with the Office of Diversion and Reentry, will sponsor rehabilitative, vocational and training opportunities to give people the skills they need to reintegrate into society.

“When it comes to mental health, most facilities are not equipped to deliver a full range of behavioral health services that may be required to truly bring healing to someone in need. With an empty building on the MLK Medical Campus, we had a unique opportunity to imagine what it would be like to have a one-stop shop for all behavioral health needs. As the first of its kind in the State of California, I believe the Mark Ridley-Thomas Behavioral Health Center will set the standard for mental health care delivery, but most importantly, bring a new level of healing,” said Dr. Jonathan E. Sherin, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.

“The Department of Health Services is excited to collaborate with our mental health partners along with other department to innovate delivery of care. The BHC will provide care for the body and mind, and it is our goal that when someone walks into those doors, they know they are on their way to healing and restoration,” said Dr. Christina Ghaly, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services.

“We can’t provide substance use disorder services in a vacuum. It has to be delivered in collaboration with mental health, physical health, and spiritual health services. BHC allows us to create a new system of care that would integrate these different systems,” said Dr. Barbara Ferrer, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Additionally, in a comprehensive effort to create a new paradigm in the delivery of care and healing, significant attention was given to the inclusion of civic art throughout the building from local artists. The exterior art piece, created by artist Cliff Garten, was inspired by water as an image of hope and renewal. The work entitled, Water to Wishes, draws inspiration from the wishes of the community expressed during the community engagement process. The interior piece, designed by Freeland Buck, is a multi-layered mural stitching together photographs of 21 homes from the surrounding Willowbrook community.

In addition to the exterior and interior pieces, another art component that will be integrated into the center is a Martin Luther King, Jr. portrait by renowned painter, Lyle Suter. In 1972, the portrait was misplaced after it was commissioned by the Colonial Savings & Loan Association. The painting was lost for several years until it was recently discovered and restored by the conservators, Aneta Zebala and Suzanne Morris.

“Bringing new life to this building required uplifting and reinvigorating the façade–no better way to do this than with art. The building design lent itself for something dramatic and inspiring, and I couldn’t be more thrilled about the critical role that the arts have played in the transformation of this building. The civic art on the façade and the lobby let you know you have arrived at a safe space where your healing can begin,” said Kristin Sakoda, Director of the Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture.

In addition to the building being inaugurated, the main street leading to the building’s doorstep has been renamed Healing Way by a Willowbrook community member in honor of the building’s transformation.

The newly renovated center is anticipated to officially open in the year 2021.

35,000 Masks to Skid Row Street Outreach Teams focused on Mental Health

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas will facilitate the donation of 35,000 surgical masks to the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health’s Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement (HOME) teams at the Downtown Mental Health Clinic in Skid Row.

HOME teams include mental health psychiatrists and counselors, psychiatric nurses and social workers, substance abuse counselors, medical caseworkers, and people who have experienced homelessness. They work directly with people living on the streets, at parks and under freeways to offer compassionate, knowledgeable, collaborative help in accessing medical, psychiatric and social services. They also provide consultation, advocacy, transportation, intensive case management and collaborate with other agencies to coordinate linkages to relevant services and resources – including housing, mental health services, access to healthcare, and benefits establishment.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, HOME teams have been a key part of Los Angeles County’s effort to provide particularly vulnerable populations with critical basic needs, including food, water and clothing, personal protective equipment, temporary stays in a hotel or motel room through Project Roomkey and/or affordable apartments with supportive services.

“HOME teams represent the best of Los Angeles County, going out every day to serve some of our most vulnerable neighbors, literally saving lives in a pandemic,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “With this donation of surgical masks, we can help keep them safe, as well as their clients, who need care more than ever.”

Director General Louis Huang of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles, which donated the masks, said, “Taiwan fights relentlessly to protect our friends from COVID-19 and the Taiwan Can Help campaign was launched to ensure masks for all. We are all Angelenos fighting COVID-19 as one. Taiwan stands in solidarity with LA to safeguard the lives in our City of Angels.”

“Throughout the COVID crisis, our staff has remained on the frontlines to serve the County’s most vulnerable individuals and families experiencing homelessness, supporting their wellbeing as the pandemic continues to take a toll on physical and mental health,” said Jonathan E. Sherin, M.D., Ph.D., Director of Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.  “The vital work our HOME team does would not be possible without their passion and commitment and keeping them safe with personal protective equipment is a priority to us. We thank Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office for their gift of 35,000 surgical masks to support the health of our staff.”

Below is a summary of work performed by the HOME teams since the Safer at Home order was issued in March:

  • 19,513 Outreach Contacts
  • 323 People placed in Project Room Key
  • 79 People placed in Los Angeles Recreation and Parks shelters
  • 31 People transported to Isolation & Quarantine sites for observation/treatment related to COVID-19
  • 122 People placed in interim housing (other than Project Roomkey)
  • 80 People matched to permanent supportive housing
  • 42 people placed in permanent supportive housing
  • 63 People assigned to Full Service Partnership (FSP) intensive mental health treatment programs

As the pandemic continues, the HOME Teams’ focus is shifting from providing transitional services to facilitating ongoing mental health care and safe housing for their clients.

Proclaiming Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October

Every year, more than 250,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 1 in 100 men are diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lifetime.

Knowing what may contribute to breast cancer is an important part of its prevention – and everyone should speak with their health care provider about their risks and what they can do to mitigate those risks – including regular screenings and mammograms.

Especially in light of the uncertainty of the future of the Affordable Care Act, speaking with health care providers is even more important.

We take a moment, every October, to celebrate breast cancer survivors and those currently fighting this disease for their courage and resilience.

It is also important to note that across the nation and globe, significant progress has been made in the fight against breast cancer – and that research and innovation must continue in the months and years to come.

The dedicated providers and researchers working to eradicate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease through prevention, early detection, and scientific research should also be commended for their hard work.

The month should also serve as a critical reminder to all men and woman to take proactive efforts to monitor their health to prevent late-stage disease diagnoses.

We also take this moment to encourage women and men to follow the recommendations for monthly self-examination, annual check-ups and regular mammograms for early detections for breast cancer.

Participate in the Street Naming Contest for Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus

I am pleased to announce the three finalists for the Street Naming Contest at Martin Luther King, Jr. Medical Campus. Over one-hundred and thirty entries were submitted and went through the vetting process. Six of the most favored names were presented to me, and I had the pleasure of selecting the top three selections.

In July of 2015, when we first opened the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital, the community submitted names for the road that leads to the hospital and selected “Healthy Way”. I once again call on the constituents of the Second Supervisorial District to help us choose a name that is most reflective of the surrounding community, the medical campus, and the soon-to-come Behavioral Health Center.

I present to you the three entries (in alphabetical order) and why the contestant presented this name; please pick your favorite by Wednesday, October 7th to become part of the medical campus legacy:


Freedom Road:

Because we are all still walking on it — and Freedom Road often leads to places where we become broken and in need of respite and healing.

Healing Way:

Healing and wholeness in the community occurs when our minds bodies and spirit are in balance.

Recovery Road:

This represents a hopeful return to recovery for many seeking care at MLK Jr. Whether it is overcoming substance abuse, debilitating mental illness, or chronic homelessness, everyone is working towards their own recovery.



Please select your favorite of the three selections.  Voting will take place on a Twitter poll.  Please vote only once.

Forward the contest link to your friends and family and encourage them to cast their vote

The twitter poll will be closed October 2 and the alternative voting method will be closed no later than October 7, and the winner of the contest will be announced shortly thereafter.

NOTE: If you do not have a Twitter account you can also vote here.