What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Why California is struggling to provide adequate mental health care

With more Americans seeking treatment for mental health issues, lawmakers and the U.S. health care system are having trouble keeping up. People with severe mental illnesses who don't find adequate health care often end up on the streets or behind bars. And the options for residential long-term care are dwindling. Byrhonda Lyons of CalMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization, reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Following two mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, mental health is again in the spotlight.

    As more Americans seek treatment, the health care system and lawmakers can't keep up.

    For some Californians who have struggled with a severe mental illness, the road to long-term care sometimes begins with a stop behind bars. The largest mental — the largest mental institution in California, rather, is the Los Angeles County Jail.

    Byrhonda Lyons of CALMatters, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization, examines how the mental health system is failing some of the most vulnerable.

  • Joanna Jurgens:

    Keep tapping me on the shoulder: "Mom, look at that white car. That white car is following us. That's the government. That's the CIA."

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    Joanna Jurgens noticed something wrong with her son Jeffrey on a family trip to Tahoe, California.

  • Joanna Jurgens:

    This is him in junior high.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    He was 17. It was his first psychotic break, and the beginning of his years-long struggle with schizoaffective disorder.

    Over the next four years, Jeffrey landed in jail frequently.

  • Joanna Jurgens:

    I remember saying to the judge in El Dorado County judge: "I need help. He needs help, and I don't know what to do, but I — we're waiting for a disaster to happen."

  • But he said:

    "The law — my hands — there's nothing I can really do."

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    His time in jail and on the streets gave him an unlikely friend, Officer Michelle Lazark.

  • Michelle Lazark:

    I saw Jeffrey sitting on a bench. He didn't have any clothes on. He was all disheveled.

    And I said, "Hey, are you a new guy?" And he says, "Well, yes, I am."

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    Across the country, more than 90 percent of patrol officers encounter about six people experiencing a mental health crisis each month, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

  • Michelle Lazark:

    OK, great. This is going to be great. You're going to get treatment. You're going to get the help you need. You're going to get housed. And they just can't keep it together.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    Following Jeffrey's arrest from stealing a car, a judge finally witnessed what Jurgens' mother had been saying for years, that he was sick.

  • Joanna Jurgens:

    The judge was trying to talk to him. And then he — my son just started yelling out. "Who do you — who the F do you think you are? And I'm Jesus Christ."

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    Instead of jail, he was sent to the Atascadero state mental hospital, where he's been for the past five years.

  • La’Tanya Dandie:

    We're here talking about mental health. And that's my little 27-year-old son.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    La'Tanya Dandie's son Kristopher had his first psychotic break at 19. Since then, when Dandie has turned to law enforcement for help, officials say their hands are tied.

  • La’Tanya Dandie:

    So they say, ma'am, we can't do anything, because it will violate his civil rights.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    California, like most states, makes it difficult to compel people to get treatment.

  • La’Tanya Dandie:

    Well, my civil rights. Your officer just heard him screaming like somebody was attacking him. And I'm on the phone with him a few seconds ago. He was like, "Well, we can't do anything."

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    But Dandie's son was now in more desperate straits. At the time, he was homeless.

    For those with mental health issues, finding affordable housing is nearly impossible. For the few who have found a place to live, the options are dwindling.

    Nationally, about a third of people with a serious mental illness are homeless.

  • Tom Gray:

    I hate being homeless again. I was homeless about 20 years before I came here.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    Tom Gray has schizophrenia. For the past 11 years, the Vietnam vet has lived at this San Francisco boarding care home.

    Since 2012, more than a quarter of residential facilities in San Francisco serving people under 60 have closed their doors. Nationwide, small boarding care homes like where Tom lives have lost about 15,000 beds between 2010 and 2016, according to a survey by the National Center for Health Statistics.

  • Tom Gray:

    Not knowing where I'm going to go next. That's how I feel, kind of lost.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    Gray has found a temporary house in San Francisco, but he will have to move again in a few months.

    A bill winding through the state legislature would triple the number of people who can use Medicaid dollars to live in boarding care homes, but it still has a long way to go.

  • Jim Beall:

    There isn't a big political action committee well-funded for mentally ill people, OK? It doesn't exist.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    State Senator Jim Beall of San Jose, California, created the state's first mental health caucus.

    He's trying to not only increase housing options, but also create avenues for the judicial system to deal with those with mental health issues, its mental health court.

  • Stephen Manley:

    Our jails are overcrowded. Our prisons are overcrowded. The crime rate has really not changed dramatically. Yet we have more and more people incarcerated. And so we have to do something different.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    There are more than 300 mental health courts across the country in nearly every state. Instead of jail time, Judge Stephen Manley orders people to take their medication, stay sober and sends some to community treatment programs.

  • Stephen Manley:

    You're not in jail anymore. See, it's so much better. Breathe the clean air. Ah, just keep it up.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    While Judge Manley works to keep people out of prisons and state hospitals, for people like Jeffrey Jurgens, the trip and structure at the hospital is often the best option.

    Once a month, Joanna Jurgens makes this four-hour drive to visit her son.

  • Joanna Jurgens:

    It's good and bad to say that your kid is happy in a state hospital.

  • Byrhonda Lyons:

    For parents like Joanna Jurgens, La'Tanya Dandie, and many others, state laws and resources continue to be a challenge for getting their children help.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Byrhonda Lyons in Sacramento, California.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest