Opinion: Alameda County mental health funding ‘shooting in the dark’
The 20 people who voiced frustrations in a recent Zoom meeting represented a fraction of the membership of Alameda County FASMI — Families Advocating for the Seriously Mentally Ill. “Everybody here has skin in the game,” said Katy Polony, co-founder of this group whose members have firsthand or secondhand experience with serious mental illness.
An Alameda County Civil Grand Jury report issued last year validated their complaints. “Alameda County residents witness daily the inadequacies of our mental health system,” the grand jurors wrote, calling our safety net “fragmented and unresponsive” and adding, “entry to the system must be streamlined.”
County residents will have a chance to question this system when the Board of Supervisors considers how to spend the approximately $100 million we get each fiscal year thanks to the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA).
California voters enacted the MHSA in 2004 when they approved Prop 63. It put a 1% income tax surcharge on earnings above $1 million, creating a pool of funds for county governments to help needy residents with serious mental illness.
Alameda County uses MHSA funds to contract with more than 100 community-based organizations that deliver prevention and treatment services.
But the Grand Jury investigation found a “questionable allocation of resources” owing to “the unavailability of useful and coordinated data.” Their report characterized current funding decisions as “shooting in the dark” and recommended that the county do a comprehensive assessment of mental health needs and create a strategic plan to improve cost efficiency.
County officials disagreed. The county “does not approach this type of assessment from a single ‘needs/gaps’ viewpoint,” health officials wrote. “It does instead evaluate current programs, client services, utilization, and demographic data … to determine whether additional investment, expansion or program recalibration is needed.”
Alameda County Behavioral Health, the agency which administers the MHSA program, will release a draft spending plan in April. The public will be able to comment before the Board of Supervisors adopts the budget for the next fiscal year.
I found the Grand Jury report when I went looking for answers after trying and failing to help a mentally ill adult tap into the safety net. That adult fortunately reconciled with family members who could afford to buy the person private insurance.
But no one knows how many people with serious mental illness are forced to rely on our “fragmented and unresponsive” system. We should assess their numbers and needs and reconsider how we try to meet an overwhelming demand with finite resources.
As a survivor of serious mental illness, I know that the patient is often reluctant to accept treatment.
For county mental health officials to reject the Grand Jury’s recommendation suggests that we have a mental health system in denial. It needs a public intervention.
Former newspaper reporter Tom Abate is a freelance writer who lives in San Leandro. This is adapted from a post on his blog, tomabate.com/ruminations.