Breakdown: California’s mental health system, explained

ental health advocates have long described California’s fragmented mental health system with words like “struggling” and “broken.”

Evidence of its consequences can be found in our jails and prisons, our hospitals and clinics, our schools and colleges. The problem touches those living in comfortable middle class suburbs, remote rural towns, and on the streets of the state’s biggest cities.

In January 2018, a year before he was elected governor, Gavin Newsom laid out his concerns: “Our system of mental health care in California falls short, not for lack of funding. We’ve done the right thing in this state: Thanks to the vision of Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, we passed a millionaire’s tax in 2004 that now funnels more than $2 billion a year into services. We fall short because we lack the bold leadership and strategic vision necessary to bring the most advanced forms of care to scale across the state. We lack the political will necessary to elevate brain illness as a top-tier priority.”

The Legislature in recent years has tried to respond. Some efforts, such as the court-ordered treatment programs allowed by Laura’s Law, have been controversial. Proponents say such measures are necessary to get people into treatment; disability advocates worry that they curtail people’s individual liberties without addressing widespread shortages of housing and community-based services.

With fresh attention on mental health, advocates are hoping California embraces humane and effective ways of averting some problems and solving others.