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Washoe County takes lead on regional behavioral health with new hire

Julia Ratti stands under some trees on the UNR campus, wearing a black jacket.
Bert Johnson
Julia Ratti poses for a portrait on April 26, 2024. Ratti is Washoe County's first Behavioral Health Administrator.

Julia Ratti is Washoe County’s first Behavioral Health Administrator. In her new role, Ratti will focus on piloting a regional strategy for mental health care.

Bert Johnson: Your position at the county is brand new. So why is Washoe County stepping into the behavioral health space, and why now?

Julia Ratti: No matter where you look, no matter who you talk to, any community health assessment that you read will show that behavioral health is rising to the top as a concern. It’s a concern for the people of Washoe County, and so it’s a concern for the county. And we want to lean in.

Johnson: And what’s your mandate with this role? What are some of the goals that you’ve got, and what do you hope to accomplish in your first couple of years on the job?

Ratti: I think it’s really important to note that the county has been in the behavioral health space for a long time. We serve populations that have behavioral health needs – and so if you think about our child welfare system, or our juvenile justice system, individuals who are experiencing homelessness, the folks who have to interact with the court system or in the jail, behavioral health is not something that just the county can improve. It’s a system of care.

I kind of describe it as a herding of cats. There’s all these really great initiatives. There’s all these really smart, capable people working to improve the behavioral health system. And this [position] is intended to make sure that there’s good collaboration between the state, the county, the cities, the private nonprofits, [and] the private for-profits who are working in the behavioral health space.

Johnson: Some of your colleagues at the county say that this is a Washoe County problem that needs to be solved here. Do you agree with that assessment?

Ratti: When we say Washoe County, we don’t mean it’s a Washoe County government problem, but a problem for the community of Washoe County. And absolutely, there’s things that the federal government is working on, there’s things that the state government is working on.

But at the end of the day, we’re the ones sitting here in Washoe County, talking with our friends, our neighbors, and we’re the ones that can work together to make a difference here. So absolutely, I do think it’s our role.

Johnson: County Manager Eric Brown recently told county commissioners that we’re looking at a difficult budget in the financial year that’s coming up. So, how do you think that might impact this new regional approach to behavioral health?

Ratti: I think we’re sitting in a good position to really make a difference, but also to help when it comes to the budget. If we have fewer individuals who are ending up homeless because we’re addressing their mental health needs, or if we have fewer individuals who are ending up in the jail because we’re addressing their mental health needs, and we found effective ways to divert [them from jail] – that will actually be good for humans, but also good for budgets. So I’m optimistic.

There’s also already a number of initiatives underway. I think that the state and the county are doing a good job of taking advantage of some of the resources that have come in because of the pandemic. And I think that's 100 percent appropriate. The pandemic was, of course, a health care pandemic. But it also resulted in a subsequent behavioral health epidemic.

And so we are using some of the federal resources on the front end, to really build some infrastructure that I think will serve us in the long haul. A great example is purchasing the former West Hills facility and making sure that we don't lose that asset for continuing to provide behavioral health services in our community.

Johnson: Speaking of West Hills, that facility closed in 2021. What is Washoe County’s plan for West Hills moving forward? 

Ratti: So we have good news. Recently, we did get some additional [American Rescue Plan Act] dollars from the state to be able to rehabilitate the facility. So it’s a great example of taking advantage of some money, purchasing the building, but now renovating the building, so that [it will be] up to modern behavioral health service standards.

Losing a behavioral health care facility, in a community that already doesn’t have enough behavioral health services, was hard. And there are definitely people who are going without care or in unfortunate situations, needing to leave our community to access care. So we are working on a lot of community input to get that to a place where we can make sure that we’re filling the gaps, the best and most important gaps in that facility. And I think it’s going to be an incredible safety net for us.

Bert is KUNR’s senior correspondent. He covers stories that resonate across Nevada and the region, with a focus on environment, political extremism and Indigenous communities.
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