In summary

California should develop a statewide racially equitable, alternative response system for those experiencing mental health crises.

By Ruqayya Ahmad

Ruqayya Ahmad is a fellow with the California Pan-Ethnic Health Network, a health advocacy organization that addresses racial and ethnic health disparities.

Asantewaa Boykin, Special to CalMatters

Asantewaa Boykin is an activist, author-poet and emergency room nurse. She is co-founder of the Anti-Police-Terror Project and co-creator of Mental Health First Sacramento. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably shown all of us that the “normal” of deep inequity is not a normal to which we should return. 

Instead, it’s time to tap into our imagination, our ability to think of a better world, one different than our own reality, one where white supremacy and patriarchy don’t exist, and racial justice and equity prevail.   

Today, too many people are being denied the ability to maintain their own mental health and wellbeing. Instead, those who experience mental health challenges are often left to deteriorate until they end up in crisis. 

For people of color, this can result in tragedy as our society relies on harsh and sometimes deadly responses by law enforcement. But we can change the ending of a far too familiar story. Layering on top of a current broken system is not our only option.  

Thanks to a wave of new state and federal resources coupled with a focus on meeting the mental health needs of our communities, California has the opportunity to create a transformational new model. The CRISES Act, Assembly Bill 118, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last year, can facilitate the development of community response models for mental health.

California should view this as a chance to leverage millions of dollars from other sources to support these groundbreaking models, not as a limited scope program.  

The governor’s proposed 2022-23 budget vastly expands our mental health crisis response system through a new mobile crisis response Medi-Cal benefit, and the state will allocate millions of dollars in grants from the Investment in Mental Health Wellness Act (Senate Bill 82 of 2013) and the Behavioral Health Response and Rescue Project to crisis response services.  

California should look to do business differently and implement all of these programs in a cohesive and coordinated fashion, with a clear commitment to advancing racial equity by building upon the promise of the CRISES Act and shifting funding to non-law enforcement response models. 

We need a system of care that meets the most urgent needs of Californians and fully acknowledges the disproportionate burden borne by people of color as a result of a system built upon a police response to a mental health issue.  

Most importantly, we need to support what we know works. 

In Sacramento, for example, community advocates, mental health professionals and peers have built an alternative to 911 called Mental Health First, or MH First. Earlier this year, a young man called MH First because knew he needed to be in the hospital and had no way to get there. He was afraid to call 911 because he feared being brutalized by police or dismissed by paramedics. 

MH First was able to provide him with transportation to an emergency room unharmed and untraumatized. Without this service, the young man would have been stuck between two bad options: call 911 and risk encountering a violent response, or refrain from seeking help entirely.  

Californians deserve better options, and we currently have the ability to change this equation by investing in alternative, community-based models of care. 

A promising program like MH First shouldn’t be available only to Sacramento residents. A county-by-county patchwork of services is unworkable. We should leverage the tremendous potential of peer support providers and community health workers and unleash the power of community-based organizations throughout the state to be the alternative. 

We urge Newsom to lead the development of a statewide, racially equitable, fully funded alternative community response system for those experiencing mental health crises.  

California has a chance to right wrongs and save lives. It should not take another tragic ending to force us to think differently. Let’s shift the narrative to true community alternatives and use our imagination to create a world where peers and people with lived experiences, instead of law enforcement, can respond to those in crisis with empathy and healing. It’s what we all deserve. 

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