Santa Clara County sees demand for mental health treatment
Santa Clara County is moving forward with implementing a controversial law that allows authorities to order psychiatric treatment for people with serious mental illness. Photo by Tran Nguyen.

    After years of debating and evaluating a controversial state mental health treatment law, the program is in effect in Santa Clara County—and officials see early progress.

    The Board of Supervisors approved an assisted outpatient treatment program last May, known as Laura’s Law. The county Behavioral Health Services Department manages the program.

    The law is named after Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old volunteer at a mental health clinic in Northern California who was shot and killed in 2001 by a mentally ill man who refused treatment. The California Legislature passed the law nearly 20 years ago, but counties were required to formally opt in or out last year.

    Since launching almost a month ago, the court-ordered psychiatric treatment program has fielded more than 100 calls and received 32 referrals from clients, family members and mental health service providers, said Soo Jung, a behavioral health division director who oversees the program. The program enrolled five patients as of last week—all of whom decided to participate voluntarily.

    “We knew we were gonna get a lot of calls, but not that kind of volume,” Jung told San José Spotlight, adding the county expects 500 calls a year based on its own research.

    The program specifically targets individuals who suffer from a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. Each patient is referred and assessed by the county. Jung’s mental health team then works with those who are eligible under law to participate in the program. The team also helps connect those who don’t qualify with different services in the county, Jung said.

    Santa Clara County continues to reckon with a mental health and substance use crisis that has led to a record increase in suicides and drug overdoses. The issue is compounded by an inadequate number of beds in treatments facilities and the overuse of prisons to incarcerate those in need of treatment, county officials said.

    Demand for help high

    The program targets a small population, said Rovina Nimbalkar, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) Santa Clara County.

    To participate, a person must be at least 18 years old and have severe mental illness that prevents them from caring for themselves or recognizing their need for help. Those who fail to adhere to a treatment plan, have continuous mental health hospitalizations within a 36-month period or exhibit violent threats and behavior within 48 months also qualify for the program.

    In specific circumstances, the program allows the court to require an individual struggling with a severe mental illness who refuses treatment to comply. Jung said petitioning through the court—something the county hasn’t had to do—is the last resort for her team.

    “We are actually putting a lot of effort in outreach and engaging with (these individuals) so that they would get into this program voluntarily—rather than us having to go through the court system,” Jung said.

    The amount of calls and referrals the program receives within its first month of implementation speaks to the need for mental health services in the South Bay, Jung said.

    Nimbalkar said the program helps fill a gap in mental health services. Participants don’t have to go through the criminal justice system or remain hospitalized. NAMI Santa Clara County was a vocal supporter of the Laura’s Law program.

    “The program (in general) has shown a lot of success in providing the needed treatment and in reducing hospitalization, and reducing homelessness and incarceration,” Nimbalkar told San José Spotlight. “Sometimes this program is the only option for families when they have a loved one who’s living with a mental health issue.”

    Critics remain skeptical

    Robert Aguirre, a former engineer who became a homeless advocate, has long been skeptical about the program. He has called for the program to be completely voluntary, as he said the court-ordered treatment could be used against homeless people. Currently, three out of five people in the county Laura’s Law program are unhoused, Jung said.

    “So we’re trying to stop sending (unhoused people) to jail and we’re going to try to give them treatment,” Aguirre told San José Spotlight. “But I seriously wonder if (the county) has increased the number of beds and the number of people that are trained to deal with these situations.”

    He also questioned how the program measures its success.

    “I don’t know that they necessarily have the clinicians, the physicians, the psychiatrist or psychologist, all the people that are necessary to give the proper treatment,” Aguirre said, adding the state is facing a shortage in behavioral health workers.

    Jung said the county has funding for 11 positions on the team. She has only hired three people and plans to expand the team in near future.

    “We are working with people who are (some) of the most vulnerable members of our community, so I’m really trying to be thoughtful about who we hire,” she said. “We’re looking for people who not only are clinically sound, but also have enough knowledge about our county.”

    For more information on the program, call 1(800) 704-0900 and select option #7 or fill out a referral form and email it to 

    Contact Tran Nguyen at [email protected] or follow @nguyenntrann on Twitter.

    Editor’s Note: San José Spotlight editorial advisor Moryt Milo is a NAMI Santa Clara County board member.

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