In South L.A., the battle to stay ahead of the mental health turnstile never ends

BY JOE MOZINGO STAFF WRITER 

Photography by
FRANCINE ORR

Date: December 27,2021


The sense of emptiness gutted him. Sketching in his notebook in the dim light of his room didn’t bring Sergio Nuño the usual solace. He could barely summon the will to pour a bowl of cereal.


Nuño, 23, was on summer break from community college and laid low by depression and anxiety. He rarely left his parents’ apartment in Compton.


Late one night in August 2019, intrusive thoughts were telling him to bang his head on the wall. Trying to stop the suicidal impulses, he clenched his jaw and paced circles in the living room until his mother and father woke up.


The only therapists and psychiatrists his parents, immigrants from Jalisco, Mexico, ever saw were on TV. Back home, going to one branded you as crazy.


In South Los Angeles and surrounding areas like Compton, mental disorders mostly go untreated until they have caused irreparable damage.


Many of them are inextricably tied to other calamities that befall people who live in L.A.’s poorest neighborhoods at disproportionate rates. Even before COVID-19 hit, Latino and Black people here were dealing with more poverty, addiction, unemployment, chronic disease, homelessness, disability and childhood trauma, all of which worsen mental conditions, which then further feed those underlying problems.


Behavioral health practitioners fear the pandemic has accelerated this spiral in a way they will be coping with for years and decades to come.


Under the Affordable Care Act, Medi-Cal began covering care for mild to moderate mental health conditions in 2013, but access to care has remained low in low-income areas of color. The city of Compton has just five licensed psychologists. Santa Monica, slightly smaller in population, has 361. The system is skewed heavily toward those in wealthier communities who can pay out of pocket.


“What I see in South L.A. is unfathomable,” said Dr. P.K. Fonsworth, a bilingual addiction psychiatrist who works at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital in Willowbrook. “There’s two different Americas in mental health.”


Four days a week, the psychiatrist works in the emergency room at MLK and sees the relentless ravages of long-untreated mental illness.

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