Prop. 63 &mdash an attempt to repair our mental health system

Arlene’s son started acting very strangely when he was 13, right after his bar mitzvah. He argued, fought viciously with his siblings, made crude sexual comments toward strangers, couldn’t sleep at night.

Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back came, as it so often does. The police called, having found Arlene’s son wandering half-naked on the streets of San Francisco. 

David is a well-known leader of our local Jewish community. His brother had similar behavioral problems, but they started when he was 25. At times he was happy and upbeat, the life of the party. But at other times he was very withdrawn and unable to go to work. After two years in and out of homeless shelters, the police found him on the Golden Gate Bridge, planning to jump. His family had tried everything, but nothing worked.

Members of the Jewish community face the same mental health problems as our non-Jewish counterparts. The difference is in our collective ability to acknowledge this. The shanda or shame factor in the Jewish community is a powerful force that makes it hard to share the secret fact that most of us have known mental illness in our families.

An uncle, an aunt, a parent, a child, a niece or cousin. Mental illness is a highly stigmatized problem because it is frightening—we know a lot less about how the brain works than about how a kidney or heart works. And quality services for the mentally ill are hard to come by, especially if one cannot afford the high cost of care.

Our Jewish family service agencies, as the major providers of mental health services to our community, know the problem well. For this reason, Proposition 63 is supported by them, and by the thousands of mental health organizations, hospitals, physicians and nurses associations, police organizations and others throughout the state that know the time has come to improve our system of mental health care.

Almost 40 years ago, the state made a well-intentioned decision to empty the state’s mental hospitals and to fully fund a system of community mental health services to provide local treatment and services to people with severe mental illness. The state’s explicit promise was that the savings to the state resulting from the closure of the state hospitals would follow the patients into the community, where they would receive treatment and services for their severe mental illnesses.

To this day, that promise remains unfulfilled. The money did not follow the patients. The system of community mental health services has been badly under-funded since the beginning, and hundreds of thousands of people with severe mental illnesses in California go without treatment and services. We see some of them on the streets every day.

The fact is that treatment and services are not available to most people with severe mental illnesses in our communities in California. In most cases, short-term treatment is available only after the mentally ill fail — land in our jails, juvenile detention facilities, emergency rooms, or psychiatric facilities. Upon release, the cycle begins again.  

Prop. 63 will break that cycle. Prop. 63 will enact a law that will fully fund that system of community mental health services and finally fulfill the promise made by the state almost 40 years ago.

Prop. 63 will impose a state income tax of 1 percent on taxable personal income that exceeds $1 million per year. People whose personal taxable income is less than that will not pay this tax. The tax will raise an estimated $600 to $700 million a year.

Approximately 90 percent of that money will be used to fund prevention and early intervention services, and to fully fund the state’s existing children’s care system as well as the system of care for adults and older adults. Portions of the money will also be used to fund innovative programs, human resources development and construction of capital facilities for our mental health system

There are hundreds of thousands of children and adults with mental illnesses in California and among them are thousands of Jews. They face mental illnesses that we can prevent from becoming severe and disabling: Do we have a moral or religious obligation to provide help, even in difficult fiscal times?

We believe we do — especially when we know that providing that help saves lives, reduces suffering, allows children to stay in school and in their homes, keeps families together and saves money for our society. These funds will be used to fund our community’s system of mental health agencies, including private agencies that partner with the government like our Jewish family service agencies.

We can fulfill the decades-old promise in November and create a system of care that will set a standard for the nation.  There is nothing more compelling than the pursuit of our highest Jewish ideals-to help those not in a position to help themselves. 

Please help by voting Yes on Prop. 63. Visit the Prop. 63 Web site at and send information to your friends, family members, and colleagues.

If we are serious about repairing our imperfect world, Prop. 63 is an inspiring opportunity to do just that.

After 40 years of wandering in the desert of a broken system of care, it’s time to see the light.

Darrell Steinberg is a Democratic state assemblyman representing Sacramento. Anita Friedman is executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services.

Local voices welcomed

J. welcomes your local voice on timely Jewish issues and events of the day. Submissions will not be returned and are subject to editing or rejections. Approximate length: 750 words. E-mail text, not attachments, to the attention of: Woody Weingarten at [email protected]. Fax to (415) 263-7223. Mail to J. the Jewish news weekly, 225 Bush St., #1480, San Francisco, CA 94104