FIG1What would you do with $1.5
billion in new funding? That's the enviable challenge California mental health
programs have faced each year since 2005 when the state began to collect and
distribute a new tax on individuals with annual income over $1 million
earmarked for improving mental health services. The funds bolster the $4.7
billion the state already allots to mental health care.
Robbin Huff-Musgrove, Ph.D., notes that the California tax is supporting
early intervention efforts.
Credit: David Hathcox
The California Mental Health Services Act was approved by voters in 2004.
Its initial implementation has emphasized care for residents with serious
mental illness and expanded treatment options for homeless residents. Most
programs are operated by counties.
"The public asked that this serve people with serious mental illness
and the homeless, so most of the funding is for full-service partnerships to
provide all other attendant services around homelessness and mental
illness," said Rachel Guerrero, director of the Office of Multicultural
Services in the California Department of Mental Health, about programs that
provide housing and job-placement assistance to homeless people. She provided
an update on the act at APA's 2007 annual meeting in San Diego in May.
California mental health officials expressed amazement that they finally
have sufficient funding to provide not only more treatment services, but also
prevention and early intervention services.
Funding from the act allows mental health programs to treat early symptoms
of mental illness, instead of having to wait for people to develop severe
symptoms, said Robbin Huff-Musgrove, Ph.D., cultural competency officer for
San Bernardino County, Calif.
She pointed out that people with little or no income live under tremendous
amounts of stress, which research has shown can affect physical as well as
mental health. Health officials have focused much of their initial efforts for
low-income residents on providing treatment through community health
The state's prevention-focused framework also aims to bolster mental health
screening by primary care providers. This goal follows research suggesting
that greater improvement in detecting mental illness may come through
expanding the number of physicians who are aware they need to look for mental
illness, instead of just improving the abilities of some clinicians to detect
Another primary goal of the increased funding is stepped up mental health
care among minority groups that have traditionally had little such care or
among whom deep suspicions of psychiatric care exist.
The California program targets minority groups, in part, said Katherine
Ruiz-Mellott, M.D., because members of minority communities were found to be
more likely to present at primary care providers with somatic conditions than
with mental health ones. This can frustrate primary care physicians because
physical health problems are often symptomatic of untreated psychiatric
To increase screening and treatment among minorities, health officials have
funded several new programs with the new tax money, including interpreters in
communities where English is not a primary language. They also have begun
efforts to get more young members of these communities to go into the mental
health field, to provide the most culturally knowledgeable resource for those
groups. Health officials also have conducted outreach to underserved
communities to find out how they can provide better care.
Evidence-based mental health research has not been "normed" on
multicultural communities and that can have "disastrous"
consequences, Guerrero said. She noted that the mental health field has little
experience developing culturally specific approaches.
California mental health officials have used much of the new funding to
establish trust with communities through small group meetings in an effort to
overcome the distrust many have for a health care system they feel has long
"A lot of communities have mistrust in the system, and it took a long
time to get some of them to talk to us," said Sergio Aguilar-Gaxiola,
M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Reducing Health Disparities at the
University of California, Davis, School of Medicine.
Once a relationship has been established in underserved communities, health
officials have used the new tax money to fund a variety of programs, including
training for community-based organizations that can provide mental health
services, hiring outreach workers who know the community, and establishing
after-school activities. ▪