With one in four Americans experiencing behavioral health needs annually, it is clear that behavioral health is a critical issue throughout our communities, and should be as much as a priority as physical health in our progressive policy reforms. Whether it is ourselves or our loved ones who we care for, most of us experience at one time or another the challenges and pain that result from mental health or substance abuse needs. Currently, our health care system is not set up to effectively support these needs, and the stigma and prejudice around these issues remain a constant in our society. We can and must do better.
Today, about two-thirds of California adults with a mental illness, and two-thirds of adolescents with major depressive episodes, do not get treated. When Californians lack effective and accessible behavioral health supports, our children, our families, and our workforce see the debilitating consequences spread throughout the rest of community life. Unmet behavioral health needs stop kids from succeeding in school, lead to unjust spikes in homelessness and prison populations, cost us millions of dollars in ER visits and incarceration processes, and limit our workforce from accessing critical opportunities to succeed and thrive. If we truly want to embody our progressive values, we have to recognize that quality health care means providing the physical and mental health services, as well as compassionate and evidence-based substance abuse rehabilitative programs, that Californians need to live healthy, fulfilling lives.
First and foremost, we need to end the displacement of and incarceration of people with behavioral health needs in our communities. Currently, those who lack mental health care services or substance abuse treatment services are more likely to become homeless, and homelessness often causes serious mental illness. Because of this negative cycle, about 1 in 5 homeless individuals report a mental health illness and/or a substance abuse disorder.
Yet too often, we simply lock these people up instead of addressing the root problem. A person dealing with severe mental illness in California is four times more likely to be in prison than in a state behavioral health care facility. Not only does this approach to homelessness and behavioral health lack compassion and equity considerations, but it results in too much spending on our jails that we desperately need for our schools, transportation, and public housing. We need to do away with local policies that criminalize homelessness, and we need to expand the use of behavioral health and substance abuse treatment alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders that are struggling with these issues.
We must also expand our social safety net to address the root causes of behavioral health needs, and we must better coordinate and streamline our behavioral health services so that it is easy for people to access help if they need it. Our community clinics and nonprofit service organizations are fundamental supports for this work. We must expand their capacity to provide effective and compassionate behavioral health services and better integrate these services with physical health services by fixing our reimbursement rate structures.
We must bolster funding for safety net health providers like Highland Hospital in Oakland, which is using innovative programs and medication-assisted treatment practices to help their patients end drug dependencies. These hospitals and community clinics who serve primarily low-income communities need the financial and staffing capacity to be able to meet the physical and behavioral health needs of their patients, who are often overexposed to mental health needs and substance abuse risks because of the glaring inequities in our other public systems. Increased state support for our safety net providers, in addition to better statewide structure and strategy around how we spend Mental Health Services Act revenue, can help hospitals and community clinics better integrate their mental and physical care services and make these services more robust.
So how do we fund this work? The Mental Health Services Act provides us with a stable funding source for services to our homeless community members with mental health needs. But more than a decade after it was passed, state officials are missing the data to understand if and how that money is being used and whether it is truly helping this population. And a huge portion of that money is currently being held up in administrative court proceedings. I support Proposition 2, which would help immediately free up the 2 billion dollars allocated by the 2016 No Place Like Home program to provide supportive housing services to homeless people with mental illnesses.
We need to shift our collective mindset in California to acknowledge that mental health issues and substance abuse are chronic illnesses just like diabetes or heart conditions, and that we have a responsibility to meet these health needs with urgency and compassion, just like any physical health condition. In order to get to this place, we need to change the way we talk about and address behavioral health issues in all our public systems.
That change starts in our schools: we must allocate far more resources and preventative programs to address students’ social and emotional needs. These resources should include increased funding for school psychologists, nurses, counselors, and an investment in restorative justice programs. We also need curricula in all our schools which emphasizes tolerance and compassion, and which explicitly includes education about behavioral health so that our kids grow up without stigmas or prejudice around these issues.
We need to also train and inform our public workforce and elected leaders about behavioral health needs so we can destigmatize behavioral health conditions within our own public systems. This means more dialogue about behavioral health root causes and impact on communities, and more funding for community awareness campaigns. We should prioritize these actions especially for our homelessness outreach and law enforcement workforce, so that we can begin to reverse the cycle of displacement and incarceration of our neighbors and friends with behavioral health needs.
Yes, absolutely– pushing legislation which strengthens funding for and systemwide coordination of behavioral health programs, and taking a stronger public health approach to these issues, is a top priority for me. After working on progressive causes ranging from spearheading anti-bullying campaigns to fighting for better health care and wages for Walmart workers, I understand well the critical role that behavioral health services play in keeping Californians healthy and ensuring our communities thrive.
I believe I am the best health care candidate in this race. I am proud to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood and CaliforniaHealth+ Advocates, a coalition of community clinics throughout the state.
Darrell Steinberg, who has also endorsed my campaign and mentored me during this race, has been a leader on pushing for mental health system reforms, whether it be during his time as California Senate President pro Tempore, or as the current Mayor of Sacramento. He and I have spoken directly about the need for legislative championship on these issues, and if elected, I am prepared to work tirelessly to be that champion.
I have made behavioral health reform a key component of not only my health care platform but also my homelessness platform and education platform, because I understand that meeting Californians’ behavioral health needs means taking an intersectional and multi-pronged approach to policy reform. We must enact reforms in all our public systems to make behavioral health supports and resources more accessible and effective for all Californians.