The plan to overhaul the mental health system gives California families a glimmer of hope

In summary

California families who have long sought sweeping reforms to the state’s mental health care system are feeling confident about Governor Gavin Newsom’s plan to pursue a bond order and update the mental health services law.

Guest comment written by

Randall Hagar

Randall Hagar

Randall Hagar is a policy advisor and legislative advocate for the Psychiatric Physicians Alliance of California. He helped draft both the California Mental Health Insurance Parity Act and the Assisted Outpatient Treatment Act, also known as Laura’s Law.

Gov. Gavin Newson’s announcement in the spring to radically reshape California’s mental health care was compelling for several reasons. One is personal: I have an adult son with schizophrenia, a condition that has impacted our lives for nearly 30 years and counting.

My son is 44 and was diagnosed at age 15. During an 18-month period, he was homeless and was hospitalized for 72-hour emergencies seven times in eight counties. He has been arrested four times in three of those counties for misdemeanors such as sleeping in a parked car or stealing cigarettes.

Whenever he was released from me, I placed him in nursing homes where he was free to come and go. Then predictably he stopped taking his meds and got back on the street. Taking street drugs made his condition worse and he lived homeless on the streets for months at a time. I was meeting him irregularly for visits when he would call me to come pick him up. More than once I have found his face so bruised and bloody that it required medical attention.

This story is sadly familiar to thousands of families with loved ones who lack the capacity to take care of their most basic needs. Despite being profoundly disabled, they are free to stop taking their meds and wander the darkest canyons of cities full of danger and overrun by the homeless.

I’ve been lucky. My son was finally referred to a medical program that kept him cared for and protected for almost two years. He takes drugs that help him escape from the prison of delusions and hallucinations and most importantly, he is safe from the dangers of life on the street.

The proposed bind-and-vote measure would reform, update and modernize the Mental Health Services Act and how it uses its $3.8 billion in annual funding by dedicating $1 billion for safe housing supplemented with psychiatric care and supports. It would hold counties accountable who have a responsibility to treat the mentally ill by ensuring they get the right care at the right time in the right place.

For decades, family members, mental health providers, and physicians have called for a more comprehensive and inclusive transformation of care for the approximately half-million Californians living with severe mental illness. The social suffering quotient for these individuals has increased exponentially with impacts on families, neighbors and communities when consistent and targeted treatment programs are lacking across the state.

There are many elements covered by the new mental health proposal. One of the most critical is the creation of statewide campuses with continued funding to provide housing and integrated care.

The coordinated and supportive services that will become available under the election initiative will ultimately provide shelter, care and safety. It will also provide comfort to families who go to bed every night wondering if they will ever see their loved one again.

Newsom has presented a bold and comprehensive plan to change the way California cares for some of its most vulnerable citizens. It is a lifeline for sons and daughters across the state who, through no fault of their own, are living with a debilitating disease that has been sidelined by mainstream health care.

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