By overwhelmingly approving Proposition 2 at the polls last month, Californians have told us enhancing mental health care and preventing homelessness rank as top priorities for legislators and Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom. With $2 billion in new annual funding now available, voters expect action from the new governor and lawmakers.
At the State Capitol, mental health reform is a nonpartisan issue. Legislators on both sides of the aisle are keenly aware that 75 percent of Californians with mental health needs either receive inadequate or no mental health treatment at all.
But several meaningful bills to increase access to mental health treatment and counseling have died on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown. Among them, Senate Bill 906, which I authored to address the shortage of mental health providers by certifying peer providers with lived experience of mental illness or substance use disorders to help patients navigate the health system.
Of the priority mental health bills sent to the fiscal committees, the state Department of Finance supported none and took a position opposing 90 percent of them. The opposition focused on cost. Ignored are the on-going, lasting savings created from prevention and the benefit our society gains from more people leading healthier and productive lives.
We cannot ignore a pandemic of mental illness that strikes our young and seniors. The California Health Care Foundation determined nearly 1 in 6 California adults has a mental health need, and roughly 1 in 20 suffers from a serious mental illness that makes it difficult to carry out major life activities. One in 13 children has a mental illness that limits their participation in daily activity. The rates are alarming, yet the state’s response lags. Would we tolerate this same inaction if it were cancer or heart disease?
With Newsom’s arrival, a strong opportunity now exists to adopt bold policies to increase care and access to it. With the Affordable Care Act under assault by the Trump administration and facing challenges in courts, California must act to protect and expand its mental health care and parity laws.
The governor-elect is on record in his support for mental health parity, early intervention, the diversification of health care workforces, and I applaud him for it. They are touchstones for proposals I introduced early in December — Senate Bill 10 to certify peer mental health providers as 48 other states have done; Senate Bill 11 to strengthen mental health services provided by health plans; and Senate Bill 12 to establish 100 drop-in mental health centers accessible to all youth.
There will be inevitable budget pressures, but I hope the governor-elect does not lose sight of the value of vigorous mental health programs. These programs pay for themselves and then some by reducing costs for emergency room services, law enforcement, incarceration, social services and job absenteeism.
California needs a strong command structure that will articulate and effectively roll out the mental health resources our people need. For too long, the men, women and children suffering from mental illnesses have lacked a voice in the Office of the Governor.
Mental health advocates hope Gov.-elect Newsom can be that voice, that he will take this opportunity to institute effective policies and make history by making California the nation’s leader in mental health treatment.
State Sen. Senator Jim Beall, D-San Jose, is the chair of the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health and chair of the Senate Mental Health Caucus.