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Gov. Gavin Newson’s announcement in the spring to radically reshape California’s mental health care was compelling for several reasons. One is personal: I have an adult son with schizophrenia, a condition that’s impacted our lives for almost 30 years and counting. 

My son is 44 years old and was diagnosed at the age of 15. During one 18-month period, he’d been homeless and was hospitalized on 72-hour emergency holds seven times in eight counties. He was arrested four times in three of those counties for minor offenses such as sleeping in a parked car or stealing cigarettes.

Each time he was released back to me, I placed him in care homes where he was free to come and go. He then predictably stopped taking his medication and returned to the streets. Scoring street drugs worsened his condition, and he lived homeless on the streets for months at a time. I would meet him irregularly for visits when he called me to come get him. More than once, I found him with his face so bruised and bloody that he required medical attention. 

This story is sadly familiar to thousands of families with loved ones who lack the capacity to take care of their most basic needs. Despite being profoundly disabled, they are free to stop taking their meds and wander in the darkest canyons of cities riddled with danger and overrun by homelessness. 

I’ve been fortunate. My son was finally directed into a medical program that’s kept him treated and sheltered for nearly two years. He takes medications that help him escape the prison of delusions and hallucinations and, most importantly, he’s safe from the dangers of life on the streets. 

The proposed bond and ballot measure would reform, update and modernize the Mental Health Services Act and how it utilizes its $3.8 billion in annual funding by dedicating $1 billion for safe housing integrated with psychiatric care and supports. It would hold counties, who bear the responsibility for treating the mentally ill, accountable—ensuring that they receive the proper care at the right time in the right place. 

For decades, family members, mental health providers and physicians have been calling for a more comprehensive and inclusive transformation of care for an estimated half-a-million Californians living with severe mental illnesses. The societal quotient of suffering for these individuals is exponentially increased with impacts on families, neighbors and communities when we lack consistent, focused treatment programs throughout the state. 

There are many elements covered by the new mental health proposal. One of the most critical is the establishment of campuses statewide with ongoing funding to provide housing and integrated treatment. 

The coordinated and supportive services that will become available under the ballot initiative will ultimately provide shelter, treatment and safety. It will also provide solace to families who go to bed every night wondering if they’d ever see their loved one again.

Newsom presented a bold and comprehensive plan to change how California cares for some of its most vulnerable citizens. It’s a lifeline for sons and daughters throughout the state who, through no fault of their own, live with a debilitating disease that’s been sidelined by mainstream health care.

Randall Hagar is a policy consultant and legislative advocate for the Psychiatric Physicians Alliance of California. He wrote this column for CalMatters.org.

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