On July 5, The Tribune printed an editorial from the San Jose Mercury News that accurately describes the need for California to improve its treatment of the mentally ill.
It is important to note, however, that the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA, Proposition 63) has had a significant impact on improving services in many counties, including San Luis Obispo.
More than 7,000 people have received mental health services since the county adopted its first MHSA plan in 2005. Tens of thousands have taken advantage of education and prevention opportunities that have reduced stigma and improved the public’s understanding of mental health issues. Stakeholders, including mental health consumers and their family members, have been prominent in planning programs and monitoring the progress of the county’s MHSA activities.
Local efforts focus on those patients frequently landing in emergency rooms or jail. In 2010, clients treated as part of MHSA’s most intensive services reduced emergency room visits and psychiatric hospitalization by 66 percent, and the number of days spent in jail by 84 percent. Forensic treatment programs identify inmates and probationers with mental illnesses and provide therapy, employment training and follow-up care — improving re-entry and reducing recidivism.
Since these high need clients suffer from both persistent mental health issues and addiction, MHSA programs address the co-occurring disorders that have long gone untreated. Clients in these programs are going back to school, rebuilding relationships, staying sober and exiting a judicial system often difficult to navigate for the mentally ill. One client wrote to her team of counselors and probation officers, “Thank you for not knocking me back down.”
Clients, once limited to a narrow treatment model, can now access training, jobs, assistance with benefits and housing. The county, by way of partnerships among community providers, has added 25 new studios and apartments for once homeless consumers who now have stability and hope — many for the first time.
MHSA provides wraparound approaches to treatment and instills the values of recovery for severely mentally ill clients. Individuals are provided opportunities to develop living skills and become active community members.
Clients are engaged in experiential activities, ranging from cooking classes to serving as peer mentors for those entering the mental health system.
The approach to designing MHSA programs included outreach to stakeholders representing underserved populations. Clients and their families, with the greatest knowledge of service barriers, identified strategies to improve the system and have been active in oversight of the funds. Stakeholders have made tremendous efforts to manage budgets in order to create stable programs over several years.
Campaigns such as “SLOtheStigma” have inspired public dialogue around mental illness. Schools are identifying early signs of behavioral health issues and engaging youth in interventions that have led to improved grades and attendance while reducing suspensions and expulsions. Community-based counseling has been expanded, serving those with needs for short-term therapy, including high-risk groups like seniors and veterans.
State funding for core mental health services has been reduced drastically, as stated in the editorial. The mentally ill of this community deserve our care and attention and local MHSA funds are providing an opportunity to expand and improve services for a diverse and growing population.
Karen Baylor is behavioral health administrator for county Health Care Services. Jill Bolster-White is the executive director of the Transitions Mental Health Association.