After every mass shooting, we have a public discussion about mental illness, but what about the rest of the time?
25 to 40% of police calls nationwide are related to the behavior of someone who is mentally ill, and such instances include a higher risk of injury and death to those involved. This is a constant concern for families of the mentally ill. My brother has suffered from schizophrenia his entire adult life.
The County of Santa Clara is the only local government entity responsible for care of the mentally ill. I believe the County should have a laser-like focus on treating the severely mentally ill, which could be accomplished by prioritizing county spending, implementing state law, and advocating for changes in policy. This focused direction would help those who cannot help themselves, and in turn free up police to patrol our neighborhoods and improve public safety.
When it comes to mental health, government often tries to treat 100% of the population, and follows the “diagnosis of the day”. Taxpayer funds are often spent on feel good programs that do not always produce the results we need. For example, there are no programs that can prevent schizophrenia, but we do know that medication for schizophrenics can eliminate manic behavior. Rather than trying to treat the entire population, we need to focus on treating the severely mentally ill, which makes up 2 to 4% of the population. When we encounter someone eating out of a garbage can that believes they are on the planet Pluto, this is the person we must help, and not necessarily someone who claims trauma due to political events.
Our County government has expanded to include programs and services that were never intended, taking away funds from core services such as mental health. I believe every time a new request to spend money is brought before the Board of Supervisors, we must ask: is it more important than treating the severely mentally ill? In many cases, I believe the answer from everyday residents would be no.
Implementing existing state laws locally would also help. Laura’s Law, signed by Governor Davis in 2002, has never been implemented in Santa Clara County. This law allows a judge to compel individuals deemed severely mentally ill to undergo free professional treatment. Other California counties using this law have reduced homelessness, incarceration, and hospitalization, all of which decreases the cost to local government.
We should also advocate changing policy on how we house the severely mentally ill. We need to investigate bringing back facilities dedicated to caring for such individuals. With the closure of such facilities, the severely mentally ill often have a sad choice between homelessness or incarceration. This also fails our society at large, which has to frequently experience the manic behavior of the severely mentally ill in our public spaces. Knowing that such policy changes take time, the County should look at options, both public and private, for providing more beds for these individuals.
Unfortunately, the ongoing construction project (Valley Medical Center expansion) is five years late and approximately $250 million over budget. This fiscal incompetence closes the window on opportunities to further help our community and hampers the ability to add facilities where the severely mentally ill could be cared for professionally.
During my ten years on the City Council, I voted to spend taxpayer funds responsibly, and focus on essential services. We must prioritize helping the severely mentally ill, as doing so would also benefit society at large, improve our bottom line, and assist families who often carry the lifetime responsibility of caring for a sick family member.
Pierluigi Oliverio served 10 years on the San Jose City Council and is a candidate for Santa Clara County Supervisor in District 4. He wrote this for The Mercury News.