Opinion: Fixing Santa Clara County’s Mental Health System Would Save Lives and Money
People who could be successfully treated are instead languishing, and dying, on our streets because of political inaction. We can change this. We can reduce crime, save lives and save millions of tax dollars by finally getting serious about the untreated mental health challenges that are driving up our population of homeless residents, contributing to increased crime rates and wasting millions of taxpayer dollars.
Californians know that in decades past, the state largely dismantled the hospital system that cared for those suffering from mental illnesses, like the Agnews facility here in San Jose. The closing of these institutions correlates with increased rates of homelessness and incarceration. The state’s goal was to replace these facilities with community-based treatment, but that goal was never met, leaving thousands of individuals here in San Jose suffering on our streets, in our jails or desperately trying to seek treatment the most expensive way possible — in our emergency rooms.
After failing to fully address the crisis for decades, Santa Clara County supervisors were finally forced to declare that our county was in a mental health crisis. According to data from the California Board of State and Community Corrections, the rate of mental illness in Santa Clara County’s jails has increased more than 60% during the past decade. In 2019, 65% of individuals in our jails had an active mental health case, up from 5% in 2009. This data also shows that 47% of inmates in our county’s jails were regularly receiving psychotropic drugs, a dramatic increase from 16% a decade prior.
Right now, about 40% of the homeless population in Santa Clara County suffers from serious mental health care challenges, while 35% self-report substance abuse. And on average, 8% of emergency room visits nationally are for mental health or substance abuse diagnoses — visits that cost an average of $2,960 each in California.
Making matters worse, Santa Clara County has just 13 inpatient treatment beds per 100,000 residents. Experts recommend 50 beds for every 100,000 residents — meaning our county needs close to 1,000 additional beds to meet the needs of our community. Studies show that providing more psychiatric inpatient beds and mental health services reduces crime rates, especially violent crime. We can save lives, lower crime rates, reduce homelessness and save taxpayers’ money by requiring those who are a danger to themselves or others to use these options once available.
It isn’t that the county doesn’t have the money to increase treatment options. Santa Clara County has more than $100 million in state mental health funds they have failed to spend. The Board of Supervisors took $76 million in COVID-19 relief dollars and spent it on bonuses for county staff, many of whom make $250,000 per year or more. They spent $4.5 million on valet parking for staff. The Board of Supervisors even approved $1 million to write a book on their own accomplishments.
Clearly, this isn’t about the money — it is about mismanagement and a lack of political will. Every dollar we’ve wasted could have saved us seven dollars in criminal justice costs with proper investment in treatment programs.
Santa Clara County was among the last to officially adopt Laura’s Law last year, just before the state-mandated deadline, with Supervisor Cindy Chavez still expressing reservations about this life-saving law. The county still has yet to fully implement this law, which requires treatment for people who are a danger to themselves and others. And while counties like San Francisco move quickly to enact the new CARE courts that help nudge homeless residents suffering from mental health conditions or drug and alcohol addiction into treatment, Santa Clara County is once again dragging its feet.
This is only hard for politicians who face political pressure to send bonuses to staff or scrutiny from advocates who think it is somehow kind to let people hurt themselves and others.
If we pay attention to facts, not politics as usual, we can reduce crime, homelessness and save taxpayers millions while saving lives. It is just common sense.
Matt Mahan represents District 10 on the San Jose City Council and is a candidate for mayor.
This article originally appeared in the Mercury News.