June 10, 2021

My observations as a BHAB member

The Civil Rights Movement was led by ministers courageously confronting the erroneous belief that some of us are more valuable than others.  They marched in protest to challenge the racial segregation that had been eloquently defended by politicians and enforced by police. The neglect and criminalization of people with mental illness is the civil rights and social justice issue of our time. People with mental illnesses continue to face stark inequities borne from stigmatizing beliefs about their worth. You won’t see them marching in protest.

Ventura County leaders falsely claim there is nothing they can do. When given the chance to advocate for reimbursement for services, they refused.  To do so would mean they would have to provide the services. Their indifference keeps people untreated and perpetuates societal stereotypes and prejudices, denying opportunity and the rights and freedoms most of us take for granted. 

Other California counties have assessed what is needed to provide appropriate treatment and supports.  Ventura County is unwilling to assess what is needed.  Blaming restrictive laws and lack of funding for their refusal to create a plan for care is more evidence of stigma when other similarly situated counties are doing this work. 

We waste millions on anti-stigma campaigns aimed at changing society’s attitudes, but it is the leaders with the power to do something who must commit to the principles of equity and justice to exercise their moral and ethical responsibility to bring change.

I spent six years on Ventura County’s mental health board witnessing structural stigma. I observed the lack of investment in wellness and recovery-of-function models of care; I watched millions of dollars approved by Supervisors for programs with no data, focused on people with mild mental health challenges, while the population most in need kept cycling, untreated, through successive restrictive environments. I watched top leadership display a belief that some people’s basic human rights are open for debate when they stated, “we are doing more than we have to” for this population.  I listened to countless families whose loved ones were passed from law enforcement to hospitals, to out-of-county facilities, to jails, to homelessness and then back again. 

Leaders who are responsible for making decisions about mental healthcare should know that their silence and inaction is influenced by structural stigma and the erroneous belief that some of us are more valuable than others.  They should work toward solutions instead of continuing to endorse an inhumane status quo.   

Mary Haffner