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Mental health center opens

New facility replaces Newhall site lost in fire

Posted: November 6, 2008 7:02 p.m.
Updated: November 7, 2008 4:30 a.m.

Art and creativity are the focus for mental health clients inside one room at the newly-opened Santa Clarita Valley Mental Health Center.

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Toni Otis suffered a mental breakdown in 2003. Now she’s helping others avoid the same fate, and she’ll have new facilities to work with.

Otis was among many who helped Los Angeles Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich unveil the Santa Clarita Valley Mental Health Center on Cinema Drive near Valencia Boulevard on Thursday.

The bigger, better and more state-of-the-art facility replaces the previous offices in Newhall, destroyed in a fire two years ago.

The new center can serve between 135 and 187 clients a day and is about 4,500 square feet larger than the former offices on Peachland Avenue. It has a larger lobby area and more parking spaces.

“This is a lifeline to get the people who suffer from mental health illnesses back on their feet,” Antonovich said. “It’s a centrally located, first-class facility that has mixed in well with the whole community.”

Wall-to-wall carpeting throughout and halls decorated with floral pictures create a pastoral atmosphere in the two-story building.

“It does not ostracize those people who may feel intimidated,” Antonovich said, comparing the facility to some hospital settings.

Adrienne Hament, liaison between the county’s Department of Mental Health and the Board of Supervisors, calls the building homey.

“It’s the welcoming and the warmth of it (that) impresses me,” she said. “It’s not just the layout — it’s the ambiance. It doesn’t look like a sterile clinic.

“It says ‘Hello, may I help you?’ and not ‘You’re not needed, now get out.’”

Two spacious rooms will be used for group therapy. A room containing locked fire-retardant cabinets that shuttle along metal floor rails were designed to protect critical, sensitive mental health records.

On Dec. 16, 2006, fire gutted offices on Peachland just south of Lyons Avenue. Those offices housed the the Department of Mental Health, the Tax Assessor’s Office and other services.

Ken Kondo, spokesman for the department, said he remembers the urgent phone call he received from firefighters who rescued mental health records from the burning government offices.

“We really owe a great debt of thanks to the Santa Clarita (Los Angeles County) Fire Department,” he said Thursday. “Captain Mark Savage was the press information officer on the scene fighting the fire when he saw it was a mental health unit.”

“I told him ‘We got to save the records’ and so they did,” Kondo explained. “They drew a line to protect the records. They were badly waterlogged but not burned.”

Now the files of more than 800 clients in the Santa Clarita Valley are in specially-protected cabinets.
For weeks after the fire, mental health care workers helped clients from a trailer parked near the burned-out Peachland offices. Among them was Carole Lutness, a psychiatric social worker for the Department of Mental Health, joined the effort.

“We had no phones, no computers, no charts. They set us up in two teenie tiny offices across from the liquor store,” Lutness said.

“The first few months were rough. The day we came back to work, I brought my card table and lawn chairs. After that, we moved into the tiny office.”

After Otis suffered her nervous breakdown, she sought help from Lutness and others at the Peachland offices.

Now she’s started her own peer counseling group and plans to be use the new center to help others like herself.

“I had a breakdown and I went into hospital in 2003,” she said. “I wound up on Medicare, then I attended groups at Peachland,” Otis said. “And, the groups helped me focus on what I had to focus on.”

Now Otis coordinates Project Return’s Recovery program — a client-operated and client-centered peer support and self-help program supported by the National Mental Health Association of the Greater Los Angeles Area.

Lutness, who helped Otis on Peachland before and after the fire, said the center’s two-group therapy rooms are new to Santa Clarita Valley.

“I run a lot of groups. And, groups are the only real way people heal,” Lutness said.


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