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Ventura County Perspective

Small Steps to Meet the Needs of the Mentally Ill

April 01, 2001|SUSAN VINSON | Susan Vinson is vice president of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Ventura County Chapter, and organizer of the Call to Action Conference

As we prepare for Thursday's Call to Action Conference it is gratifying to note that some baby steps have been taken since the previous session. In February 1999, 350 community members met at a the first Call to Action Conference in Ventura to examine the unmet needs of those suffering with mental illness, particularly the county's 1,000 homeless who suffer from severe untreated mental illness. Attendees were urged to advocate for four pressing reforms:

* Health insurance parity for people suffering with treatable brain disorders.

* Residential and safe-haven treatment facilities where medical and counseling oversight are provided.

* Reform of the California law that prevents people from receiving involuntary treatment unless they present an immediate danger to themselves and others.

* Mental health courts and jail-diversion facilities for mentally ill individuals who make up 15 to 20% of our jail population.

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In 1999, the governor signed into law a bill requiring insurance companies to grant health insurance parity to people suffering from brain disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar illness and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Last year, the Assembly passed a bill designed not only to make it easier to treat individuals with a problematic history of mental illness but to provide funding to improve and amplify mental health services to these individuals. Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco) blocked that measure from a hearing in the state Senate. Instead, he turned the bill back for further study. That study, released this year by RAND Corp., stated that although researchers could find little conclusive evidence that involuntary outpatient treatment programs improved patient outcomes, there is abundant evidence that when aggressive services are available, substantial improvements in the consequences of untreated mental illness can be measured.

Supporting the complaints of mental health advocates about the absence of treatment facilities in the county, the Ventura County Grand Jury released these findings last year:

* The county does not have an appropriate discharge environment for mentally ill clients requiring supervised housing because there is a severe lack of supervised housing.

* Many of these people also need support services associated with paying and preparing for new living conditions.

* More shelter and transitional housing would likely prevent significant unnecessary admissions to Hillmont Psychiatric Center; 150 admissions a year could be avoided altogether and 75 could avoid extending the patient's stay.

* Compared to Santa Barbara and Kern counties' permanent housing for the mentally ill per 100,000, Ventura County falls short by more than 125 beds.

In November, the Little Hoover Commission, a state oversight organization, released a report that revealed gaping holes in the state system of public mental health care:

"We spend billions of dollars dealing with the consequences of untreated mental illness--rather than spending the money wisely on adequate services. We pay for jail space and court costs that we incur because mental health clients do not receive care and treatment. We pay for redevelopment and struggle to revitalize our inner cities but we pretend we cannot do anything to keep people with mental health needs from sleeping in the doorways of downtown homes and businesses."

A measure that did make it through the state Legislature last year created an outreach program for the homeless mentally ill. In the Ventura County area, it is being administered by Telecare-Hopes.

The Ventura County Sheriff's Department is attempting a second application for a mentally ill offender crime reduction grant. The sheriff proposes hiring additional behavioral health professionals for mentally ill offenders, probation officers to oversee cases involving them, and a separate court calendar to channel defendants into treatment instead of jail.

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As a result of her role in the first Call to Action Conference, housing consultant Lyn Aronson was hired by the Ventura County Behavioral Health Department to help develop a five-year housing plan and supported housing initiative.

Keynote speaker for the conference will be San Diego Superior Court Judge Robert Coates, author of "A Street Is Not a Home: Solving America's Homeless Dilemma." Tired of sentencing homeless people over and over for minor offenses such as loitering, Coates founded one of the nation's first task forces on the homeless. It found that one-third of the U.S. homeless suffer from severe untreated mental illness. As part of his research, Coates anonymously spent 36 hours in a flophouse on San Diego's Skid Row, where he encountered several people he had previously sentenced.

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