Mental health service access is limited in Salt Lake’s west side 

Story and photos by JACOB RUEDA

Residents in Salt Lake City’s west side face a lack of access to mental health and drug rehabilitation services. The area’s poverty level could affect residents’ access to care, although the immediate causal factor is undetermined. Other issues such as cost of treatment or zoning could explain why the area has an insufficient number of resources available. 

The Salt Lake County Health Department website says the county provides substance abuse prevention services through “community-based providers” by distributing information regarding drug abuse and prevention. However, the county itself does not provide treatment.

Child and Family Empowerment Services, at 1578 W. 1700 South, Suite 200, is one of the few mental health clinics in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Humberto Franco works at Social Model Recovery Systems, a nonprofit treatment facility in Los Angeles. Franco, a licensed professional in the healing arts, previously worked for a community-based health organization helping addicts in one of the poorest areas of the city. He says the cost of rehabilitation can impact access to it, especially in lower-income areas. But even with greater access, Franco says getting and maintaining qualified staff is a challenge facing treatment centers all around.

“People need to get that background in addiction and not only in psychology” in order for facilities to properly focus on treatment and rehabilitation, Franco says. Certifying and educating staff costs money, which raises the cost of services. With mental health and substance abuse issues becoming more prevalent, government has stepped in to help facilities in their treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

In September 2019, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration awarded each state $932 million to combat the opioid crisis. It was part of a $2 billion grant from the Trump Administration. 

Aaron, who asked not to be identified because he’s in recovery, says politicians are more in tune with the needs of recovery and mental health than one might think.

“There’s a lot of people lobbying for recovery,” he says. “There’s a lot of representatives that donate their time and effort into working with the recovery community.” During the Rally for Recovery that took place Feb. 21, 2020, at the Utah State Capitol, Aaron heard politicians address the issue of access to mental health and substance abuse care.

Despite government efforts to help centers through funding and initiatives, other financial and socioeconomic factors can affect access to care in low-income areas like Salt Lake City’s west side. When government does not provide, the burden of responsibility falls on a nonprofit group or private organization. 

“A lot of these programs here in Salt Lake City in particular, most of them are privately funded,” Aaron says. Rehabilitation programs can cost $5,000 a month to start. At such prices, individuals in low-income areas may find it difficult to afford treatment. Certifying and maintaining staff aside, rents and property taxes affect the overall price as well. Since taxes are higher in commercial and industrial areas, finding where to establish a treatment facility becomes crucial.

The abandoned Raging Waters Park is a few blocks east of Child and Family Empowerment Services in Glendale. The area is one of the few residential spots in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Salt Lake City’s west side has more industrial and commercial areas than residential, particularly west of Redwood Road. Aaron says his recovery began in a wilderness rehabilitation program for substance abuse. Centers for recovery are usually established in areas that are conducive to well-being. Industrial areas do not serve that purpose. Factors that go beyond zoning can affect access to treatment on the city’s west side.

Leilani Taholo, a researcher and licensed clinical social worker with Child and Family Empowerment Services, says the problem is more complex. She has worked in the field for 37 years developing culturally sensitive programs. She initially designed a trauma intervention program called “Kaimani,” which means “divine power from the wave or the ocean.”

Child and Family Empowerment Services is located in Glendale and is one of the areas in Salt Lake City’s west side where mental health services are readily available.

Her office is located in Glendale and is one of the few centers located on the west side. It provides mental health services through the county’s OPTUM program, which accepts Medicaid and is funded at the state and federal levels.

A lack of overall funding combined with adverse socioeconomic conditions make it difficult for public or private centers to establish themselves in west-side neighborhoods like Rose Park and Glendale, Taholo says.

“I’ve spoken with many colleagues who have said, ‘I’m not sure if I want to put my clinic in Rose Park or in the Glendale area,’” she says. Taholo says her colleagues believe their clients feel safer getting treatment at their east side facilities.

Heads of families in west-side neighborhoods tend to work more than one job to make ends meet. Going to a center at night might leave them susceptible to harm or criminal activity.

Combined statistics from the Salt Lake Police Department for January 2020 show a slight increase in crime activity in District 2 compared with District 1. District 2 starts at Interstate 15 and ends at around 8000 West and goes from Interstate 80 to 2100 South. District 1 goes from I-80 to roughly 2700 North and 900 West to about 8500 West.

Taholo says that despite the perceptions of the west side as being crime ridden, the on-campus shooting deaths of two University of Utah students in 2017 and 2018 refute the idea that crime is strictly a west-side problem.

Regardless of the situation, people from around the west side come to Taholo’s center for help. She says she is amazed at the resilience not just of her clients but the people in the area. “They have taken the few resources that they have,” she says, “and they make it last in ways that you and I would never come up with.”