It’s the county’s job

Grand jury calls for action in helping the mentally ill

The author served as foreman of the 2011-12 Butte County Grand Jury. He is a retired director of behavioral-health services in Colusa and Napa counties.

At a recent debate for Chico City Council candidates, I was both surprised and impressed by a shared civic concern: homelessness. The candidates agree that Chico’s homeless create a significant presence in our downtown and a large proportion struggle with severe mental illness and/or substance abuse.

Unfortunately no new ideas for dealing with the problem were forthcoming. Increased law-enforcement presence was suggested, but the inability to provide a roof over one’s head is not against the law. Consequently, that suggestion applies primarily to the severely mentally ill and substance abusers who, without treatment, will eventually display behavior that will lead to their detention.

The Butte County Grand Jury for 2011-12 conducted several investigations that provide insight into the implications and effectiveness of a law-enforcement approach to homelessness and suggest a path to a more humane and effective strategy for the future. Among its many findings were the following: Annually Butte County law enforcement agencies transport more than 1,500 people to hospital emergency departments for psychiatric evaluations; 35 percent of people in the Butte County Jail and 25 percent of those in state prison are active mental-health cases; there is an acute shortage of alcohol- and drug-treatment programs within Butte County; and psychiatric programs for the severely mentally ill are understaffed and underfunded.

The grand jury recommended that the Butte County Board of Supervisors institute a long-range planning effort for the county’s behavioral-health needs. They recommend that this endeavor include private and public medical and behavioral-health providers, social-service agencies, law enforcement and interested citizens.

This recommendation is timely, as criminal-justice and health and human-service programs are currently being realigned by the state to give counties more responsibility. Furthermore, the grand jury was of the opinion that an adequate amount of funding may be available to meet the behavioral-health needs of the county. However, the lack of system-wide coordination and spending decisions driven by the needs of individual agencies have created a fragmented and expensive delivery system.

The city of Chico needs to ensure that the supervisors meet their obligation to the severely mentally ill. It is their responsibility to bring the necessary people and organizations together to rethink how we can meet the behavioral-health needs of our citizens in a humane and cost-effective way. Our community members who experience homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse cannot deal with these problems alone.