California lags behind in mental health care despite recent improvements. It seems we have taken one step forward and two steps back. COVID-19 and the economic crisis have created a worse situation than before. For some, it is out of sight, out of mind. But research shows a majority of California’s families have had someone impacted by a serious mental health crisis. A since of urgency is needed on all levels of government leadership for those suffering from mental illness.
A statewide mental health plan with funding needs to be developed with Gov. Gavin Newsom leading the way. I give him credit for working on the issue and making some progress, the first governor to do so in a long time.
But right now a majority of people with mental health conditions do not receive any treatment. Even in the best health care systems, there are long waits for appointments. Often from the first recognition of a mental health condition to receiving treatment is 10 years. A tidal wave of mental health issues is confronting us. So let’s start working on some positive solutions.
Dr. Tom Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, writes in his new book, “Healing: Our Path From Mental Illness to Mental Health,” that “we have solutions that are effective. For most problems we don’t need to know more to be effective. We know what works.” Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the first California surgeon general, is an advocate for screening and treatment plans for children with adverse childhood experiences. Early Start programs for children with disabilities are very effective. Support groups such as Parents Helping Parents and NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health) teach families to support their loved ones.
The strategy of early intervention is fiscally competent. Waiting for treatment will make a mental health condition more acute and is not a fiscally sound policy. Most mental health conditions begin in childhood and are not usually recognized and treated. Programs such as Aspire at El Camino Hospital in Mountain View, a pre-teen to young adult counseling, drug treatment and crisis care center, should be a standard of excellence.
A good measure for mental health programs is to show reduced emergency room costs, as well as rate drops for suicide and drug overdose deaths. The federal law that prohibits Medicaid federal health dollars for psychiatric treatment hospitals and care facilities with over 16 beds was established in 1965 and has not changed since. California should get a waiver from this law because it creates more acute mental health conditions and leads to more jail and prison inmates and homeless individuals. State prisons cost well over $100,000 per inmate per year.
The mental health workforce shortage recently received a one-time boost in funding from a Newsom budget initiative. This should be ongoing. Supporting our education and training programs is critical.
Palo Alto University, which educates advanced degree mental health workers, is opening their new Mountain View campus to train psychologists and therapists for the community on Nov. 10. San Jose State University College of Health and Human Sciences is visioning more graduates and community involvement through internship residents in community clinics and schools.
We must also thank the governor for signing our mental health peer training bill. Training peers puts mental health workers in contact with people who need help and then can be referred for treatment.
A new study by George Mason University shows increased mental health services reduces jail and prison populations. A return in real dollar savings, successful healing and lower crime and trauma are values we can all agree on.
Jim Beall served in the California state Senate from 2012 to 2020 and was chair of the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health.