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To read Martin Espinoza's complete series on mental health in Sonoma County go here.

A series of articles on our community’s mental health crisis by Press Democrat reporter Martin Espinoza is exposing a worsening situation. Too often society stigmatizes and ignores the mental health needs of our community. California lacks an adequate safety net for those struggling with mental health to disastrous effect. While addressing mental health on a policy level is both difficult and costly it is worth every effort. We can be part of the solution, and this year I have authored four bills to address the crisis.

Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death overall in California. National research shows that one-third of individuals who commit suicide had contact with a mental health professional within a year of death. Unfortunately, there is a gap in suicide prevention training for mental health providers.

To meet this need, I introduced legislation in 2014 to require all mental health professionals to receive 15 hours of suicide prevention training. The governor vetoed that bill but asked licensing boards to survey licensees to evaluate a need for training. The Board of Psychology did just that and asked that I author legislation requiring psychologists to have at least six hours of suicide prevention training.

AB 89 advanced from the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee with unanimous support and is now before the state Senate.

Crisis stabilization units provide for people in acute distress associated with mental health issues and work with teams to stabilize the crisis. Simultaneously, specialists determine if the best course of action is to refer an individual to outpatient or inpatient treatment. These teams work closely with patients to build coping skills, reduce symptoms and empower self-care.

However, California does not have adequate numbers of beds at CSUs, and patients are turned away because of a law that limits services to individuals for only 24 hours. I introduced AB 1372 to allow CSUs to keep beds open beyond the 24 hour limit. This time can be used to find inpatient psychiatric care or outpatient care in the event that it cannot be secured in a day.

California lacks the resources to address mental health, which leads too many to the criminal justice system. The mentally ill are far more likely to be incarcerated than in a psychiatric hospital. In fact, it is estimated that 45 percent of the state’s prison population is living with a mental illness. Jails and prisons have become de facto mental health facilities.

For the past two years, I have authored legislation to allow judges to sentence individuals with mental health issues to psychiatric hospitals instead of prisons, but the bill has been held up due to the high cost of treatment. This year I am approaching the issue with AB 154 to require judges to make a recommendation to our state prisons that an individual receive a mental health evaluation if the defendant’s mental health played a role in the commission of their crime. AB 154 has received bipartisan support and is now before the Senate.

Our veterans are over represented in our prisons. Of the 2.6 million Americans deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, about 20 percent are expected to develop service-induced mental health problems. Three years ago, I authored a law requiring courts to consider post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma and other service-induced mental health problems as mitigating factors for convictions that occurred after Jan. 1, 2015. This year I authored AB 665 to expand my previous legislation to apply retroactively to all veterans.

To read Martin Espinoza's complete series on mental health in Sonoma County go here.

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