Steinberg’s exit leaves vacuum in mental health advocacy

Quietly and without much fanfare, as is his style, state Sen. Darrell Steinberg came to the end of his tenure last week as president pro tempore of the California State Senate.

We would be remiss in letting this milestone go by without recognizing the substantial contributions he has made to improve the quality of life of millions of Californians, particularly those individuals and families afflicted by mental illness.

Proposition 63 has transformed our state’s mental health system by providing a comprehensive “whatever-it-takes” approach to treatment, the first of its kind in the nation.

During his 14 years in the Legislature, Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has been an exemplary public servant and, arguably, the state’s greatest legislative champion of this marginalized and, oftentimes, stigmatized population. He achieved unprecedented success in expanding mental health services by authoring groundbreaking legislation and spearheading a key political initiative.

Yet, much more work remains to be done to adequately care for persons with mental illness among our homeless, in our jails and within our communities. As Steinberg leaves office, creating a vacuum of political leadership for persons with mental illness, we must commit that, together, we will build on the groundwork that he has laid.

Steinberg’s passionate advocacy for effective mental health care has left an indelible imprint on California. Since he first entered local office in Sacramento in 1992, he has worked tirelessly with both political parties to establish comprehensive statewide mental health programs for children and adults.

During his first year in the State Assembly, Steinberg authored AB 34, which initiated successful pilot projects that provided integrated services to the homeless in Los Angeles, Stanislaus and Sacramento counties. These efforts proved successful in reducing hospitalization, homelessness and incarceration among persons with mental illness. In 2000, Steinberg, along with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, persuaded the Assembly to pass AB 2034 to expand these services to over 30 counties.

Steinberg also authored Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), and led a tough fight to get it passed by the voters on the November 2004 statewide ballot. The measure included a one percent tax on personal incomes of one million dollars or more to fund what Steinberg had called the “underfunded and deficient system of mental health care” in California.

Proposition 63 has transformed our state’s mental health system by providing a comprehensive “whatever-it-takes” approach to treatment, the first of its kind in the nation. Not only has MHSA generated the needed awareness and support that Steinberg envisioned, but it is generating results. To date, this program has provided mental health care to over 500,000 Californians. A 2012 report found that every dollar spent on these mental health services in California saved roughly $0.88 in costs to the criminal justice system and health and housing services. These financial metrics, of course, do not account for the reduced human suffering or the ability of those who have been helped to return to productive work.

Mental illness affects every ethnic, racial, cultural, economic, and social group, impacting individuals of all ages and genders. It is estimated that one in four persons in California lives with a diagnosable mental disorder, and one in five children will experience an emotional disturbance in their lifetime.

Mental illness is a condition that, directly or indirectly, through our families and friends, touches everyone. Steinberg knows this fact all too well.  For years, his family struggled through an agonizing private battle to help his daughter, Jordana, cope with severe mental illness.  She has recently spoken publicly about her experience, in an effort to de-stigmatize mental illness. Now, she plans to become an advocate for people living with mental illness, following in her father’s footsteps.

Steinberg’s tenacious commitment over the past few decades has resulted in fewer persons with mental illness living on the streets; fewer arrests, incarcerations, and unnecessary hospitalizations for mental illness-related incidents; and more persons receiving appropriate, comprehensive treatment. He has led the way for California and the nation to find a more humane and effective approach for dealing with mental illness.

Senator Steinberg’s legacy is a work in progress. Now is the time for legislators and other elected officials to step forward to continue his mission with similar commitment and compassion. In fact, it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that the system that Steinberg envisioned is effective and, ultimately, sustainable. Together, we must commit to create a system of mental health care that is responsive, equitable, and culturally proficient, in partnership with our communities and families. The thousands of Californians who rely on a potentially life-changing system of mental health care deserve nothing less.

Ed’s Note: Cynthia A. Telles, Ph.D., is director of the UCLA Spanish-Speaking Psychosocial Clinic, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Neurobehavior, and chair of the board of directors’ community benefit committee for Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospitals.


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