Nguyen: Santa Clara County needs immediate action on mental health crisis

Sometimes compassion means taking action. For many of our severely disabled neighbors, the time is now.

California families and communities are facing the devastating impact of the mental health and addiction crisis. Many of us see this every day – people suffering on the streets and in need of advocacy and treatment options. Fortunately, California lawmakers have been making significant changes to our mental health system and have provided tools that Santa Clara County can use.

In October, Governor Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 43, the first major overhaul of California’s Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) regulatory law in more than 50 years, expanding US protections and the ability to assist vulnerable residents. The updated law will help county mental health departments petition the courts to appoint a conservator to direct the care and treatment of people who are unable to care for themselves.

Prior to the passage of SB 43, conservatorships were only available to people with severe mental health disorders who were unable to meet their basic personal needs for food, clothing, or shelter. But we still see people languishing in cycles of arrest and incarceration, mental institutions, homelessness, and many times premature death.

SB 43 aims to fix this vulnerability. It expands the meaning of “severely disabled” to include people who are unable to provide physical safety or necessary medical care. The updated law also expands to include substance abuse disorders and chronic alcoholism, and no longer requires co-occurring mental health disorders.

Transparency of data, fairness, and outcomes will increase, while the LPS Act will continue to provide due process protections. In other words, SB 43 catches up with the 21st century and addresses the realities we see on our streets today.

Serious mental illness and substance use disorders have widespread impacts on families, friends, schools, and community members. They are the enablers of homelessness and chronic living on the streets. SB 43 will help us reach the small population of homeless people who refuse help and are rapidly declining on the streets.

While many residents do receive volunteer services, a minority are unable to take advantage of recurring services even when experiencing a severe crisis. Helping those who cannot help themselves is a compassionate and responsible thing to do.

SB 43 will take effect in 2024, but counties can delay implementation until 2026. I strongly urge Santa Clara County leaders to implement this new law immediately. Those with serious illnesses and their families cannot wait.

Many residents I spoke with agreed that we must do more to help those with severe, untreated mental health and substance abuse disorders. Residents are frustrated because clearly we have more to do. However, many people are not getting help because current regulatory laws do not meet today’s needs. Thanks to SB 43, now we can and as a county we have a responsibility to seize this opportunity.

SB 43 has been endorsed by mayors across California, including San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, California’s National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and leading organizations representing mental health professionals. These experts agree that too many people are being ignored right now. SB 43 will help change that.

When we have the tools to give those with serious illness and the most vulnerable the support and respect they deserve, it is uncompassionate to allow them to suffer. I urge county leaders to join Governor Newsom, mayors, mental health advocates and professionals to implement SB 43 immediately.

Madison Nguyen is the former deputy mayor and city council member of San Jose. She is a candidate for the Santa Clara County District 2 Board of Supervisors.

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