Election Section

Mentally Ill Need 33: By MICHAEL MARCHANT

Friday October 15, 2004

On Nov. 2nd, Californians will have an opportunity to dramatically change the communities in which they live, for better or for worse, by casting a vote on Prop 63. Voting No on Prop 63 will increase the likelihood that some of the most vulnerable and troubled members of our communities continue to flounder in local jails, overcrowded shelters, and in doorways and on park benches, while much of the resources and wealth in our communities remain in the hands of the privileged few. Voting Yes on 63, on the other hand, will help ensure that those who have plenty reach out to those in the greatest need, so that they might be able to access the support and resources they need to get back on their feet. To be specific, Prop 63, also known as the Mental Health Initiative, will guarantee that care is available to the hundreds of thousands of people in California who are disabled by mental illness by initiating a 1 percent tax increase on incomes over $1 million (the first million dollars is not subject to the increase), thereby addressing the problem of economic inequality in our communities while lending a helping hand to those whose most basic needs have been severely neglected by our federal and state governments during the past several decades. 

More than forty years ago, California emptied its psychiatric hospitals with a promise to fully fund mental health services in the community. Unfortunately, that promise was never kept. The federal dollars that were promised never materialized, few community mental health centers were created, and the performance of the few that were created was dubious. Under President Reagan, the problem worsened as deeper cuts were made and those with psychiatric disabilities were consequently neglected by the communities that were mandated to serve them. As Walter Tratner writes: “As a result, many, if not most, of [those suffering from mental illness] were reinstitutionalized, not in mental hospitals under the care of physicians, but in substandard and poorly run nursing and old-age homes or in wretched boarding-houses, skid-row tenements, local jails, municipal shelters, and especially on the nation’s streets, which have become the nation’s new mental wards.” Today, conservative estimates suggest that 25 percent of the homeless people in California are mentally ill. 

While the plight of the mentally ill in California has steadily worsened since deinstitutinalization began in the 1960s, there are others in California whose experience has been quite the opposite. During the last thirty years, the wealthiest in California have been asked to give back less and less to their communities to the point where, today, those who make over $1 million a year pay only 7.2 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while for those making under $18,000, that number is nearly 12 percent. With Prop 63, we have an opportunity to address this grave inequality. The tax increase associated with Prop 63 would fund mental health services in California to the tune of $600 - $700 million each year. 

But money alone will not guarantee that the mentally ill in California will get the care they need to improve their lives. And this is why the money that is generated by Prop 63 will go to those programs that have demonstrated results. One such program is the City of Berkeley’s Mental Health Department. Several years ago, the city was awarded state funding to address the problems of homelessness, hospitalization, and incarceration associated with mental illness in Berkeley. Berkeley’s Mental Health Department launched an effort to tackle these community problems and the results have been remarkable. The City enrolled one hundred people in the program, all of whom suffered from mental illness, and the majority of whom were homeless and cycling in and out of local hospitals and jails. Among all program participants, there was a 61 percent reduction in the number of days spent homeless, a 73 percent reduction in the number of days hospitalized, and a 71 percent reduction in the number of days incarcerated. 

As a social worker at Berkeley’s Mental Health Department, I can assure readers that the city is committed and able to meet the needs of Berkeley residents with psychiatric disabilities, as are other mental health programs throughout California. But in order to accomplish our goals, more resources are needed. I urge you to vote Yes on 63. Together we can strengthen our communities by finally fulfilling the promise that was made to those suffering from mental illness and to their loved ones forty years ago.