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By Robert Eliason

Two local lawmakers say there’s a crisis happening with mental health and substance abuse in Santa Clara County—and they want local government to start addressing it.

At a joint news conference Monday, Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Otto Lee announced their intention to proclaim mental health and substance abuse as public health crises at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. Also in attendance was Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Stephen Manley, who pioneered one of the country’s first the behavioral health courts, as well as Momentum for Health CEO David Mineta and Santa Clara County board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) member Frank Alioto.

The proclamation is part of a referral to the board requesting a series of studies over the next three months. The referral does not propose specific funding or legislation to combat the problems. Instead, it outlines a process for establishing a comprehensive treatment plan to be presented to the board by April.

The referral cites as critical issues record increases in suicides and drug overdoses, with a statewide shortage in behavioral health workers, along with an inadequate number of beds in treatments facilities and the overuse of prisons as a “place of last resort” for those in need of treatment.

Ellenberg referred to the crisis in mental health care as being decades in the making, which now requires innovative responses across levels of the government, the private sector, community organizations and residents to resolve.

“The current fractured system of care is unacceptable,” she said. “Despite continued investment and the addition of new programs by the county government, the reality is our mental health and substance abuse services are overwhelmed.”

Momentum for Health CEO/President David Mineta, Supervisor Otto Lee, Judge Stephen Manley, Supervisor Susan Ellenberg and NAMI Santa Clara County board member Frank Alioto. Photo courtesy of the office of Supervisor Ellenberg.

Ellenberg described the referral as having three actions relating to mental health and substance abuse. It would declare the public health crisis, identify actions that would lead to systemwide planning to address the issues and address the workforce shortage in the mental health care sector.

Lee said the issues of mental health and substance abuse surround our lives daily as the region enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The urgency of the moment is beyond measure,” he said. “Stress, anxiety, fear, sadness, confusion, loss—these are all feelings that many of us face every day. Similarly, substance abuse has been a crisis in our community and will remain a crisis until we act.”

Judge Manley said the criminal justice system has become a way of warehousing the mentally ill.

“Mental illness is not a crime,” he said. “Yet our criminal justice system and our courts have been inundated with mentally ill individuals who are being held in custody far beyond the time of their sentence and are remaining in custody longer than other individuals who are not mentally ill and have committed the same crime. Our jails are turning into mental health institutions which are not their purpose and never was.”

According to the referral, over the last decade, the number of incarcerated individuals with active mental health cases rose by 63% and two-thirds of current inmates have a moderate to high need for substance abuse treatment. While Santa Clara County approved a $233 million psychiatric hospital last February, the 77-bed facility falls short of the 969 beds required to meet the county’s needs, according to a 2019 California Hospital Association report.

NAMI will  issue a letter supporting the referral. NAMI-SCC Co-President Victor Ojakian, speaking for himself, said he thought Ellenberg and Lee produced a thoughtful report and hopes the rest of the board will recognize their work.

“They appreciate that we need to stop the piecemeal approach to addressing mental health issues,” he said. “Too often, people take the ‘thumb in the dyke’ solution rather than fixing the whole problem. They acknowledge that behavioral health issues can afflict people of any age. They want to look at the issue more comprehensively and coherently to make sure the right actions are taken.”

Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]

This article was originally published by The San José Spotlight.

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