Rethink mental-health cuts

The resources available to assist our neighbors with mental-health issues are dwindling rapidly. Public revenue streams have been particularly hard hit; it’s one of the biggest problems resulting from the general government budget crisis and the economy as a whole.

With the county is struggling in every area, cutbacks in mental-health services seem inevitable. Recent reporting by SN&R contributor Amy Yannello has highlighted the threats to clinics and services, which meet the mental-health needs of several thousand local residents.

We know that people who have chronic mental illnesses are more likely to have difficulty getting access to health insurance, particularly that which adequately covers mental-health care. We know that people who have mental-health issues are also more likely to be unemployed, more likely to be homeless, more likely to need emergency assistance, more likely to be abused and exploited by social predators, and more vulnerable to other health risks.

We know that people with mental illness who can’t access appropriate treatment often seek relief in self-medication through alcohol and street drugs. We know that citizens with mental-health issues disproportionately live in poverty and get their medical care in emergency rooms.

And yet we have continued to stigmatize people with mental illness as somehow less deserving of public assistance.

The fact is that mental illnesses are chronic, remitting and relapsing diseases—just like asthma or diabetes. We all understand that a chronic asthmatic must receive medication and respiratory therapy to function—and that, when treated, a person with asthma has at least a fighting chance to be a productive member of our community. We’d never think of cutting off her access to inhalers during, for example, fire season, when the air quality makes breathing difficult, even for people with healthy lungs. Yet county officials are actively contemplating cutting off access to mental-health services for thousands of Sacramentans. Like the asthmatic who couldn’t breathe without an inhaler or the diabetic who, without insulin and supportive treatment, would be in crisis, a person with untreated mental-health problems will end up in local emergency rooms.

The recent news from Placerville of a mentally ill woman in distress, who fled an emergency room in a stolen ambulance, only to be shot to death by police, will be repeated. It is a fact that sometimes, mental illness is fatal—just like asthma and diabetes.

But it is also manageable with assistance—treatment that is surprisingly inexpensive compared to the cost of emergency-room visits and police involvement. Sacramento County needs to prioritize this assistance. If we don’t do it because it’s the compassionate thing to do, then we need to do it because, in the long run, it’s the fiscally sensible thing to do.