Sonoma County Mental Health Services
Mental Health: A Community ResponsibilityThis essay is written by Pedro Toledo, JD, MA, Director of Community and Government Relations for Redwood Community Health Coalition – the network of 16 community clinics in Sonoma, Marin, Napa, and Yolo counties. His personal and professional experience, as well as his commitment is to improve the quality of life for people living with mental illness, is impressive.
By Pedro Toledo
Imagine if 1/4 of the population was diagnosed with a disease that ravaged the community, killed countless people and tore families apart. Envision carting the sick off to prisons. Picture reading newspaper stories of people who were killed in the streets, victims of a disease that even law enforcement officers didn’t understand. Imagine a world where the sick turn to self-medication with alcohol and drugs in an attempt to relieve their symptoms. This illness sees no boundaries; it affects the rich, the poor and all races of people.
This illness exists today in our community, affecting thousands of people. It’s called mental illness. With medical research indicating that the life expectancy of people living with mental illness is 25 years less than the average, we must address mental illness as a community priority.
Treatment for mental illness is as effective as treatment for high blood pressure, asthma or diabetes. Recent advances in treatment options result in more and more individuals reclaiming full and productive lives. People in recovery- managing their illness, holding down a job and forging positive relationships- are an inspiration.
Here’s an example of what happens when early detection and treatment of mental illness occurs. As a teenager, Maria was diagnosed with mental illness. Her family stood by her side and supported Maria by educating themselves and remaining actively involved in her therapy. Maria and her family joined the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Now an adult, she receives supportive housing services from Buckelew, attends college and holds a steady job. Her parents are certified NAMI teachers, leading courses at Southwest Community Health Center to help other Spanish-speaking families cope with mental illness.
With the commitment and hard work of many agencies and advocates, many people like Maria connect to the support and services they require. Others aren’t so lucky. Unable to navigate the fragmented and oftentimes bureaucratic mental health delivery system, thousands fall through the cracks, ending up in prison or taking their own lives.
Recently, the county mental health department shifted hundreds of patients to the community clinics, a stark indicator of the strain on the mental health delivery system. While joint collaboration remains an opportunity to work together, these types of decisions need to be complemented with funding mechanisms. Unfortunately, Medi-Cal policies currently restrict reimbursement for mental health visits rendered on the same day as primary care visits at community clinics. This limitation stifles innovation and serves as a roadblock to care at a time when our community needs solutions.
With the current economic downturn, many community members have lost their homes and jobs. During these difficult times, even more people are in need of mental health services. Mental health agencies are struggling to meet the needs of more people with fewer resources as they face even deeper budgetary cuts as a result of the State budget crises.
Despite these conditions, we must move forward. Our community organizations, government agencies and the business sector have a long and proud tradition of forging partnerships to collaboratively develop effective solutions to address challenging problems. Working together, we can improve the mental health safety net to ensure that all members of our community have the opportunity to thrive.
Now, imagine a world that accepts mental illness as a disease, where families are strong and communities are resilient. Envision a world where we treat people in crisis in local hospitals and where police are trained to deal with people in crisis just like they are trained to deal with a heart attack victim. Imagine a community of survivors. This community, while not far away, won’t become a reality on its own.
Bust the stigma associated with mental illness by learning about, volunteering with or donating to local organizations serving people with mental illness. Vote for County Supervisor candidates that are committed to improving the local mental health delivery system. Ask your State legislators to protect mental health services. And, most importantly, join me in honoring the people and organizations who work each and every day to improve the quality of life for people living with mental illness.
Pedro Toledo, JD, MA is Director of Community and Government Relations for Redwood Community Health Coalition – the network of 16 community clinics in Sonoma, Marin, Napa, and Yolo counties.
To learn more: www.rchc.net