It is time to care for people with mental illness

by Carol Leish, MA

According to Mary Haffner, who served on the Ventura County Behavioral Health Advisory Board for six years, “The Ventura County Board of Supervisors, at their February 8th meeting, ordered a sweeping, multi-agency assessment of the continuum of care for people with severe mental illness and substance use disorders. Ventura County Health Care Agency Director Barry Zimmerman said that, “It is necessary to perform a comprehensive review and assessment of the entire system of care. Far too many people suffering from severe mental illness cycle through the revolving doors of hospitalization and incarceration.”

This important directive came after a recommendation from the county’s Behavior Health Advisory Board and on the heels of a vigorous campaign by the Ventura County NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness) advocacy group who met privately with a number of county leaders asking for better services for people with serious mental illness. The group consists of the NAMI-VC President Patti Pape, NAMI-VC Executive Director Roberta Griego, A NAMI-VC board member, Jerry Harris, Ratan Bhavmani (current VC Behavioral Health Board Members), and Mary Haffner. The county leaders that the advocacy group met with included the VC Board of Supervisors, Erik Nasarenko (District Attorney for the County of Ventura), and Sheriff Ayub.

Haffner said, “A good continuum of care includes prevention services, crisis care, best-practice treatment in the community, therapeutic facilities, supportive employment, and housing. We know what works; these are treatable and manageable illnesses. However, with so little invested on front-end crisis care, we spend exorbitant amounts on the back end for poor health outcomes, which is a backwards system. There are vast societal, fiscal, and human costs associated with failing to provide a comprehensive and effective continuum of care for this vulnerable population.

“This system passes individuals through law enforcement encounters, numerous short-term hospitalizations, homelessness, and jail. Ventura County is one of the few large counties with no psychiatric ER, so individuals and law enforcement wait hours or days tin general hospital emergency rooms at great costs. There are few inpatient beds, fewer intensive step-down options, and only one crisis stabilization unit for a county of 843,000. When you don’t invest in what is needed to help people get better, the responsibility for care is offloaded to law enforcement, jails, and expensive out-of-county facilities. Our jails house more people with mental illness than the county’s therapeutic facilities combines and taxpayers pay $81,000 a year to incarcerate someone with a mental illness versus $32,000 a year for permanent supportive housing. Communities are less safe because police are taken off the beat to deal with mental health emergencies.”

It is time to care for and improve situations for people with severe mental illness and substance use disorders. Haffner said, “We need to invest in prompt and effective treatment, and to move away from jailing low-level mentally ill offenders. It is our hope that this directive to conduct a review and assessment signals a better understanding by leaders that it is in all of our best interest to provide compassionate care and treatment and a continuum of care for this vulnerable population.”

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