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[whitespace] Shock Therapy

Facing $74 million in cuts, the mental health system braces for more people living--and dying--on the street

By Loren Stein

For those suffering from the anguish of debilitating mental health problems, the county's extensive range of mental health services and programs can mean the difference between a normal life and a living hell. If he hadn't been able to turn to the county for help, says Barry, "I'd be back on the streets or dead; I would have lost all contact with my family. [The county] helped me stay out of the hospital and get back on my feet. It's very, very important to continue these services; they're a lifeline for so many people."

People who get benefits arouse fear or resentment in others, says Tom, also a county mental health client. "There's little awareness of how much we suffer, how much we go through, how hard it is to make it day to day. There's a depreciation of our value and our dignity, which is often reflected at the time of budget cuts."

Barry and Tom are members of the Office of Consumer Empowerment--a group of seven mental health clients who help advise and coordinate the county's mental health department. With a budget of about $160 million, the department offers adults, families and children a wide range of inpatient, outpatient, residential and emergency services in a variety of settings such as clinics, crisis centers, foster homes and jails.

Davis is now proposing $74.4 million in cuts to the state's mental health system, including shelving the Adult and Children's Systems of Care, a $42.6 million statewide program. "The status on mental health in the state is just atrocious," says Robert Sillen, executive director of the Santa Clara Valley Health and Hospital System. "There will be no money, no bailouts. I don't know what we'll do with those patients; they'll be out on the streets."

Santa Clara County's mental health department, which serves more than 22,000 clients, will lose a special allocation of nearly $2 million, says the department's director, Dr. Nancy Pena. There may be another round of reductions when the state budget is finalized. "The state budget shortfall forces county governments to cut where there's discretionary funding," she says. "Our department is dependent on local dollars, which is a good thing, but it also means we're vulnerable." The department's cost-of-living adjustment will be sliced in half, a host of positions will go unfilled and $800,000 will be cut for contract providers, which include 23 community-based groups (including EMQ).

"The mental health system has the resources to meet less than half of the need in any community," Pena says. "It's terribly frustrating. There's a lack of credibility to mental illness: people are afflicted, but it's not considered a bona fide problem--it's considered a shameful condition. Mental illness is a phenomenon in society that's underestimated and undercounted."

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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