Thursday, November 30, 2023

Santa Clara County needs to act now on the mental health crisis

Sometimes, compassion means action. And for many of our severely disabled neighbors, that time is now.

California families and communities face the devastating effects of our mental health and addiction crises. Many of us see this every day—people suffering on our streets, in need of advocacy and treatment options. Fortunately, California lawmakers are making a major overhaul of our mental health system and providing tools for use in Santa Clara County.

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Senate Bill 43 dramatically changes California’s Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) conservatorship law for the first time in more than 50 years, expanding our ability to protect and help the vulnerable resident. The updated law allows county mental health departments to petition the court to appoint a conservator to oversee the care and treatment of a person who lacks the ability to care for their self

Prior to the passage of SB 43, conservatorship was only available to those with serious mental illness and unable to provide for their basic personal needs for food, clothing or shelter. But we still see people suffering cycles that include arrest and imprisonment, psychiatric hospitals, homelessness and many times premature death.

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SB 43 aims to fix this loophole. It expands the definition of “severely disabled” to include people who cannot provide for their personal safety or necessary medical care. The updated law also expands to include substance use disorder and chronic alcoholism, and no longer requires a co-occurring mental health disorder.

There will be more transparency of data, equity and results, along with continued due process protections provided by the LPS Act. In other words, SB 43 keeps pace with the 21st century and addresses the realities we see today on our streets.

Serious mental illness and substance use disorders have widespread effects on family, friends, schools and community members. They are drivers of homelessness and long-term living on our streets. SB 43 will help us reach the small portion of our homeless population that rejects help and is rapidly shrinking on the streets.

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While many residents accept voluntary services, a small number cannot avail themselves of the services repeatedly offered, even if they are experiencing a severe crisis. Helping people who can’t help themselves is a compassionate and responsible approach.

SB 43 goes into effect in 2024, but allows counties to postpone implementation until 2026. I strongly urge Santa Clara County leaders to implement this new law without delay. Those living with serious illnesses and their families cannot wait.

I spoke with many residents who agreed that we need to do more to help those with severe, untreated mental health and substance use disorders. Residents are frustrated because it is clear that there is more that we need to do. And yet many people are not getting help because current conservatorship laws do not meet today’s needs. Thanks to SB 43, now we can and it is our responsibility as a county to embrace this opportunity.

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SB 43 has been endorsed by major city mayors across California, including San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) California and leading organizations representing mental health professionals. These experts agree that today too many people are falling through the cracks. SB 43 will help change that.

There is nothing compassionate about allowing people with serious illnesses and the most at risk of harming themselves to suffer when we have the tools to give them the support and respect they deserve. I encourage our leaders in the province to join Gov. Newsom, mayors, mental health advocates and professionals and implement SB 43 without delay.

Madison Nguyen is a former San Jose vice mayor and council member. He is a candidate for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, District 2.

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