Restoring California’s Failing Mental Health Programs

California’s mental health system is struggling to keep up with demand.  Those seriously in need of treatment are trapped in a rotating cycle that takes them from living on the street, to the emergency room, sometimes to jail, then back to the street. Since more serious cases get the most attention, people with milder symptoms don’t receive needed care and often fall into the same cycle.

Today, only about a third of Californians with mental illness receive the care they need, and 31 of California’s 58 counties with a “high need” for mental health services report a shortage of mental health caregivers. That must change quickly if we are to get a handle on this serious public health/safety problem.

That’s why I joined Senator Scott Wiener as co-author of Senate Bill 964.  Sponsored by the Steinberg Institute, the bill will create a “Behavioral Health Workforce Preservation and Restoration Fund.”  SB 964 develops new coursework in our colleges and universities that focuses on behavioral health, creates an online job board where licensed providers can post job openings, eliminates bureaucratic barriers that prevent trained workers from entering the field, and requires a comprehensive analysis of California’s behavioral health workforce so we can meet the state’s growing needs. The bill also provides hiring and performance-based bonuses for workers and a stipend program for students in Master of Social Work programs with special focus on public behavioral health.

Implementation of SB 964 will revitalize and expand California’s behavioral health workforce, and increase access to care for thousands of untreated or under-treated Californians dealing with serious mental illness and substance abuse problems. Ultimately, better care for the mentally ill will not only restore thousands of lives, it will lead to less homeless, less crime, and better, safer communities for all Californians.