By Janene Scully

Noozhawk North County Editor

A “perfect storm” has created an urgent need for expanded mental health treatment and spurred a push by Marian Regional Medical Center to create options within the city of Santa Maria.

Dr. David Ketelaar, immediate past president of Marian’s medical staff and a 22-year Emergency Department physician, delivered a presentation to the Santa Maria City Council recently about the efforts to develop mental health treatment programs.

That includes a crisis stabilization unit and in-patient treatment beds within the city, he said, confirming that one possible option is the old Valley Community Hospital building on East Plaza Drive, where Marian’s operator, Dignity Health, has nearby medical support facilities. The Plaza Drive site is about 2 miles from Marian’s hospital and primary campus.

Santa Maria, now Santa Barbara County’s largest city, has limited programs and lacks in-patient treatment beds, requiring the transfer of people out of town.

“It’s the perfect storm. This has been building for many years. The perfect storm — these factors are the decreasing supply of beds, the increasing population and the increasing prevalence. We recognize that we’re not keeping up,” Ketelaar said, adding that the impact is felt in the Emergency Department and across the medical community, prompting a move to tackle the issue proactively with Santa Barbara County representatives. “It’s a very difficult issue. … We’re not alone in our county. Every county in California, every state in the country is grappling with this issue right now.”

Statistics show that one in five adults have a psychiatric illness, he said, adding that the problem crosses all “socioeconomic barriers.”

Ketelaar noted that Santa Barbara County has eight in-patient mental health beds per 100,000 residents, compared with 13.7 for the similarly sized Tulare County. Meanwhile, Ventura County has 15.3 beds per 100,000 residents.

“We need to fix this locally here, and that’s what the hospital has in its sights right now,” he added.

Dignity Health’s plan calls for several steps, including creating a crisis stabilization unit, an in-between facility for someone who otherwise is medically stable but would benefit from more immediate psychiatric care while awaiting longer-term treatment.

“By having a crisis stabilization unit, we can start some of that work intensely right away when we’ve determined there’s a mental health emergency,” Ketelaar said, adding that people typically stay less than 24 hours.

The crisis stabilization unit would offer four to eight chairs, not beds, while delivering “healing and helpful” care with access to psychiatric services, substance abuse help, social workers and more.

By offering the service locally, medical personnel can implement a patient’s support network once someone is stable and can be released, he added.

“Down the line, it’s a longer time scale, but to get in-patient beds in Santa Maria would be something that would really benefit our community, too,” Ketelaar said. “And that’s in our sights. We think that’s something that is very doable. It’s going to take a lot of collaboration … but it can happen.

“Our goal is to treat our patients locally and to improve these services here.”

For about five years, reports have circulated that Marian representatives were eyeing a mental health facility for the building that housed Valley Community Hospital, which was closed by Tenet Healthcare Corp. in 1999. 

More recently, as the new Marian hospital building was under construction, the old Valley Community Hospital served as Marian West, providing additional acute care beds. An urgent care facility also operated in the building before being closed.

In response to a question from Councilman Michael Moats, a dermatologist with an office on Plaza Drive, Ketelaar confirmed that former VCH could find a new use with behavioral health programs as a lynchpin for several services.

Ketelaar said he anticipated that programs would attract more behavioral health medical providers to the community.

To help raise funds for the new behavioral health programs, the Marian Foundation has pledged proceeds from its fundraiser Vineyards and Vistas, scheduled for 3 p.m. Aug. 24 at Presqu’ile Winery in Santa Maria. Go to for tickets and information.

“The summary of this is, we want to do this and we plan to do this,” Ketelaar said, adding that it will take a communitywide effort.

Mayor Alice Patino said she had seen the presentation a couple of months ago.

“And I thought the community needs to see this because we need to know what’s going on,” she said. “This is our community, and the information was wonderful.”


Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at