Back and Forward: Maggie Merritt

Steinberg Institute director on mental health resources

Back Web Only Nov 12, 2018

Maggie Merritt, executive director of the Steinberg Institute, offers her insight into mental health advocacy. For more from the Steinberg Institute, check out “Minding the Gap” in our November issue. Sign up for our newsletter and we’ll email you when it’s available online.

(Courtesy of Maggie Merritt)

What’s the biggest change in mental health policy or advocacy in the past year?

One of the biggest shifts in mental health policy stems from the passage of landmark legislation we sponsored, Senate Bill 1004. California has a highly decentralized system of mental health care, which can make it difficult to standardize best practices. SB 1004, for the first time, establishes a statewide strategy for how counties can spend nearly $500 million a year in state funds that specifically target prevention and early intervention in mental illness.

The bill ensures that counties are spending PEI funds on areas of proven need and employing best practices in treatment. It builds in accountability, requiring the state to provide technical assistance and evaluation.

The legislation is part of our broader effort to promote a more deliberate approach to mental health care across California. We’re asking: What are the four or five services that we know would cause a dramatic decrease in the number of people who end up in our streets or prisons or morgues because of untreated mental illness? How do we scale up what works?

SB 1004 was co-authored by Senators Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, and John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa. It passed the Legislature with bipartisan support and was signed into law in September.

What do you foresee as the biggest change on the horizon in the year to come?

Two major changes are on the horizon, both related to the Nov. 6, 2018 statewide election. California has elected a new governor, and with that comes renewed opportunity to reshape and strengthen the state’s approach to mental health care. In coming months, our Steinberg Institute team will draw on global models to devise a roadmap toward a more effective, efficient and innovative mental health delivery system. We stand ready to work with the new administration to make that system a reality.

In addition, California voters approved Proposition 2, and that will be a gamechanger. That’s the ballot initiative that launches the “No Place Like Home” Program. It authorizes the state to use a small percentage of state mental health funding to leverage $2 billion in bonds to build housing, linked to treatment and services, for people living homeless with a serious mental illness. We know about a third of the people living homeless in California have untreated brain illness. This will mark a massive infusion of resources to attack this public health crisis. Over time, we hope to move tens of thousands of people off the streets and into recovery.

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