PD Editorial: Breaking down barriers to providing good mental health care

Eric and Connie Petereit talk with each other in their son's bedroom, at their home in Healdsburg, California on Thursday, August 24, 2017. Eric and Connie's son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2013, when he was 19 years old. (Alvin Jornada / The Press Democrat)


We need resources in our own community so we have a fighting chance at supporting our loved ones …”

— Victoria Mataragas of Santa Rosa, whose 24-year-old son jumped to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2014.

Among the many unsettling truths to emerge from the “Crisis care” investigative report by Staff Writer Martin Espinoza over the past several Sundays, one of the most heart-rending is this: Victoria Mataragas is not alone. What family members of those battling mental illness want more than anything is a clear path forward.

But in today’s health care environment that may be hard to find, especially for those unfamiliar with the complex terrain and terminology. The existing system in Sonoma County for addressing mental health concerns is labyrinthine, filled with traps and dead-ends. Worse, it has a waiting list of people wanting and needing access.

It’s a list that has only grown since two psychiatric hospitals in Santa Rosa closed their doors 10 years ago for financial reasons. That was the latest setback in a faltering effort to provide community-based mental health care since the state made the commitment a half-century ago to do away with the old model of treating mental illness through in-patient psychiatric institutions. The goal of closing those lifeless facilities and replacing them with community-based treatment centers was laudable. But the execution was lamentable.

It was as if California knew what it didn’t want but wasn’t willing to commit to supplying what it did want. As a result, this county, as with many, is addressing a significant portion of its severely mentally ill by once again institutionalizing them — this time in jail.

As Espinoza noted, nearly 40 percent of the 1,100 inmates held at the county’s main jail and its lower-security North County Detention Facility near the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport have some form of mental health issue, ranging from mild depression to bipolar schizoaffective disorder.

As a result, the county is in the process of building a $48 million wing at the county jail just for inmates with mental illness. It’s a good news/bad news story. Having those dealing with mental illness separated from the regular jail house population and receiving specialized care is certainly a positive. At the same time, it raises important questions, such as how many more mental health services could the county provide for $48 million and how many of those now in jail might have avoided being behind bars had they benefited from such programs?

The answers may never be known. Nonetheless, this new wing, which is scheduled to be completed in about two years, reflects the growing recognition that is occurring across the nation about the seriousness of mental illness.

As the series noted, nearly 1 in 5 people in the United States have some type of mental illness — and nearly 1 in 25 has a serious mental illness. Based on those federal statistics, that means it’s an illness that’s touching the lives of more than 20,000 people — and their families and friends — in Sonoma County alone.

Many struggle in private because, while mental illness should be treated like any other illness, it’s not. It comes with more than its fair share of obstacles such as stigmatization, ignorance and, worst of all, indifference. Stories like these, we hope, will help to bring down some of those barriers and give these individuals and their loved ones what they desire most — a fighting chance.