Nguyen: Santa Clara County needs to act now on mental health crisis
A homeless person lying under the overpass of Highway 17 is seen in this file photo.

Sometimes, compassion means taking action. And for many of our gravely disabled neighbors, that time is now.

California’s families and communities are facing the devastating impacts of our mental health and addiction crises. Many of us see it every day—people suffering on our streets, in need of advocacy and treatment options. Fortunately, California legislators have been undertaking a major overhaul of our mental health system and have provided tools that Santa Clara County can use.

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 43 which significantly reforms California’s Lanterman-Petris-Short (LPS) conservatorship law for the first time in more than 50 years, expanding our ability to protect and help vulnerable residents. The updated law will help county mental health departments petition a court to appoint a conservator to direct care and treatment for a person who is incapable of caring for themselves.

Prior to the passage of SB 43, conservatorship only applied to those who have a serious mental health disorder and could not provide for their basic personal needs for food, clothing or shelter. But we still see people anguishing in cycles that include arrest and imprisonment, psychiatric hospitals, homelessness and many times a premature death.

SB 43 aims to fix this loophole. It expands on the meaning of “gravely disabled” to include people who are unable to provide for their personal safety or necessary medical care. The updated law also expands to include substance use disorder and chronic alcoholism, and no longer requires a co-occurring mental health disorder.

There will be increased transparency into data, equity and outcomes, along with the continued due process protections provided by the LPS Act. In other words, SB 43 catches up with the 21st century and addresses the realities we are seeing today on our streets.

Severe mental illness and substance use disorders have a wide-reaching effect on family, friends, schools and community members. They are a driver of homelessness and prolonged living on our streets. SB 43 will help us reach a small portion of our homeless population who reject help and are rapidly declining on the streets.

While many residents do accept voluntary services, a small number cannot avail themselves of services that are repeatedly offered, even when they are experiencing a severe crisis.  Helping people who are unable to help themselves is a compassionate and responsible approach.

SB 43 will go into effect in 2024, but counties are allowed to postpone implementation to 2026. I strongly urge Santa Clara County leaders to implement this new law without delay. Those living with severe disorders and their families cannot wait.

I’ve spoken to many residents who agree we must do more to help those with serious, untreated mental health and substance use disorders. Residents are frustrated because it’s obvious there’s more we should do. And yet many people are not getting help because current conservatorship laws do not address today’s needs. Thanks to SB 43, now we can and it is our responsibility as a county to embrace this opportunity.

SB 43 has been endorsed by big city mayors throughout California, including San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) California and leading organizations representing mental health professionals. These experts agree that right now too many people are falling through the cracks. SB 43 will help change that.

There is nothing compassionate about allowing people with severe disorders and most at-risk of harm to themselves to suffer when we have the tools to provide the support and respect they deserve. I urge our county leaders to join Gov. Newsom, mayors, mental health advocates and professionals and implement SB 43 without delay.

Madison Nguyen is a former San Jose vice mayor and councilmember. She is a candidate for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, District 2.

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