In some ways, Juan Acosta had plenty in common with other kids in Woodland, California, where he grew up. He had moved there withAnn Collentine’s passion for prevention in mental health and her conviction that difficulty getting treatment for brain disorders is a matter of social justice have led her to the forefront of technological change in the delivery of behavioral health services in California.
As deputy director of programs at the California Mental Health Services Authority, Ann is leading a $102 million statewide initiative in which 15 counties and cities are using technology to provide new kinds of mental health services, including online chat for support, virtual avatars for coaching and education, and the use of passive data collected from smartphones or tablets of informed and willing users that may indicate signs of possible developing mental health problems.
“It’s very exciting,” said Ann, whose agency is the fiscal intermediary between the counties and technology vendors and is providing the data management framework for the effort. “We are learning a tremendous amount.”
The pathbreaking technology initiative is funded with proceeds from the state Mental Health Services Act, the 1 percent tax on incomes above $1 million that voters approved in 2004 and which was co-written by our founder, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg.
Counties have chosen various vendors to provide services, top among them 7 Cups, which provides 24-hour peer chat support (a peer is a trained person with lived experience with mental health services, or a family member), and Mindstrong Health, which provides “digital biomarkers” technology that analyzes cell phone usage to identify potential mental health challenges and suggest strategies. Glen Moriarty, founder and CEO of 7 Cups, is a member of the Steinberg Institute’s board of directors, as is Tom Insel, co-founder and president of Mindstrong (Gov. Gavin Newsom also named Tom recently to be his key mental health policy advisor).
Ann, who took the helm of the technology suite initiative last July, has been with CalMHSA, a joint powers authority comprised of most of the state’s counties and several cities, for the last eight years. She previously lead CalMHSA’s $147 million “Each Mind Matters” campaign, a multi-media prevention and early intervention initiative that was also funded by the Mental Health Services Act and which the Rand Corp. found showed positive outcomes in stigma and discrimination reduction, suicide prevention, and improvement of student mental health.
“I’m very thankful for the Mental Health Services Act. It’s incredible. I’m very grateful we are understanding the importance of prevention and early intervention,” Ann said.
“Over the last eight years, I have seen the conversation change. There is far more awareness of the importance of mental as well as physical well-being.”
Ann previously worked at the state Mental Health Services Act Oversight and Accountability Commission as a program supervisor, and as a mental health specialist at the former state Department of Mental Health.
Originally a middle school teacher in Oakland, Ann became focused on mental health issues in the late 1990s when she was co-executive director of Sacramento Child Advocates, a nonprofit that provided legal services for abused and neglected children. There Ann came to believe that the emotional and mental health needs of children and their family members were getting short shrift.
Ann has also been personally touched by mental illness, having had friends and family members who lived with brain disorders.
“I have reflected on the lack of treatment and access that destroys families,” she said. his parents from a small town in Jalisco, Mexico, at the age of 2, joining a town with a large Latinx population.
But kids of any culture can be cruel, and long before he’d come to his own conclusions about who he was and who he loved, he was being picked on by other kids and labeled as gay — only that wasn’t the word they used.
The bullying stoked his anxiety and soon he was looking for any excuse to stay home from school. “I tried to avoid going,” Acosta says. “I said my stomach hurts and would try and skip school, just to not be in that environment.”
By the time he got to middle school, he was in a lot of emotional pain – but keeping it to himself and not wanting to bother his parents, who put in long hours doing janitorial and restaurant work.