Measure O targets county’s mental health crisis

Sonoma County’s unmet needs for mental health care are everywhere. The county’s largest mental health…

Sonoma County’s unmet needs for mental health care are everywhere.

The county’s largest mental health facility isn’t a clinic or a hospital. It’s the jail. About 40% of jail inmates suffer some form of mental illness, and some are stuck there for weeks and months, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars, because there is no space available in a state hospital or a less expensive treatment program.

In the streets, police are routinely sent to handle incidents involving mental illness because no one else is available.

It isn’t unusual for local emergency rooms to be disrupted by people in urgent need of psychiatric care who are stuck waiting, sometimes for hours, because the county’s emergency facility is already filled to capacity.

There is an undeniable correlation between unmet mental health needs and homelessness, one of Sonoma County’s most intractable problems.

In the county’s 2019 survey of homeless people, 38% acknowledged abusing drugs or alcohol, 35% reported psychiatric or emotional problems and 25% said they suffered from post-traumatic street disorder.

The time has come to take on the problem.

Measure O on the Nov. 3 ballot is a quarter-cent sales tax that would raise $25 million a year for 10 years to improve emergency mental health services and develop supportive housing in Sonoma County.

We have opposed almost every tax increase or renewal this year, because the coronavirus pandemic has upended the local economy and still threatens the lives of local residents.

But we are persuaded that mental health care is a crisis in Sonoma County and there isn’t an alternative source of funding.

Measure O isn’t a panacea. It won’t fix all the problems with mental health care, which has been underfunded for too long at all levels of government. It will provide revenue that can’t be diverted to other programs.

Here’s what Measure O would pay for:

Forty-four percent of the revenue — $11 million a year — is earmarked for emergency assistance. That includes expansion of the county’s 16-bed emergency stabilization unit and making the county’s mobile support team, a group of mental health providers who assist law enforcement, available for more hours and across a larger part of the county.

The stabilization unit is a costly bottleneck in the delivery of care. Patients are supposed to stay for just 24 hours, but they’re often stuck longer because there’s no room in longer-term care facilities.

Twenty-two percent of the money — $5.5 million a year — is earmarked for facilities providing longer-term care, including a locked psychiatric facility for local residents, residential care facilities and supportive housing for individuals discharged from crisis care.

Smaller shares are set aside for outpatient and residential substance abuse care, mental health treatment for children and targeted mental health and substance abuse treatment and transitional and permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

There’s no question about the need for these services, and more.

However, there have been concerns about the county’s behavioral health program, which was plagued by budget chaos for several years, resulting in painful midyear service cuts and bailouts from elsewhere in the county’s budget.

The supervisors brought in new, experienced leadership who in turn introduced fiscal controls that earned a commendation from the Sonoma County grand jury.

The word “crisis” gets tossed around a lot, but it fits mental health care, here and across the country. Measure O is a step toward better mental health services in Sonoma County. The Press Democrat recommends a yes vote.

You can send letters to the editor to [email protected]