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Consumer Advocacy Coalition Is a Growing Force for County’s Mental Health Community

Amid a climate of uncertainty and a looming ballot initiative battle, the year-old group steps up its efforts to preserve services

Less than a year after the Consumer Advocacy Coalition was formed, the group’s executive director is gearing up for what may be its toughest challenge yet. Roger Thompson, who oversees the mental health advocacy group, is on a mission to educate the public about Proposition 1E, one of a half-dozen ballot measures facing voters in May.

If approved in the May 19 special election, Prop. 1E would divert over two years’ time $500 million from mental health programs to the state’s general fund in an effort to close California’s $42 billion deficit. The proposition deals with funds put in place by a 2004 initiative, Proposition 63, which implemented an additional 1 percent tax on households with incomes of $1 million or above. Currently, that money goes to create new and expanded mental health programs for children and adults.

“Prop. 63 is working,” Thompson said. “Two hundred thousand people are enrolled in mental health services that weren’t before 2004, including 50,000 children.”

If funds are siphoned from mental health programs to ease the budget deficit, he said, more and more Santa Barbara County residents who survive by utilizing available services will likely face increased risks of homelessness or jail time. Without continued support of medicine or counseling services, many more residents will simply fall through the cracks.

The money redirected toward the state’s general fund, Thompson said, would offset less than a percent of the current deficit. Taking money from a mental health fund if Prop. 1E passes would set a bad precedent, on both the state and federal levels, he said.

“California is a hugely important state, politically, and what we do here, the world watches,” he said.

While explaining his nonprofit organization’s efforts, Thompson shares his own experiences, putting a human face on the budget cuts the mental health community faces. The 28-year-old, who has bipolar disorder, got involved in April 2008, when he was told his services would be cut, and he realized that about 800 people might be similarly affected.

“Not everyone is able to advocate for themselves effectively,” said Thompson, noting that he felt a responsibility to speak out. In spite of pleas made before the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors, about $4 million in mental health cuts went forward last year. The effects of those cuts weren’t fully realized until a few months later, Thompson said, but when people who had relied on services found themselves cut loose, reality set in.

The Consumer Advocacy Coalition's town hall meeting in Santa Maria was its second as the nonprofit organization seeks to educate the public and mobilize support for mental health services.
The Consumer Advocacy Coalition’s town hall meeting in Santa Maria was its second as the nonprofit organization seeks to educate the public and mobilize support for mental health services. (Consumer Advocacy Coalition photo)

“I saw people losing hope, and becoming very symptomatic,” he explained. Thompson himself lost his ability to check in with a therapist for his own disorder and he said he became suicidal. About 300 people were directly affected by the cuts and three were left homeless, he said.

When funding for simple activities such as writing and poetry groups came to an end, Thompson said, some people lost an opportunity to interact with their therapists and others, so the hastily formed Consumer Advocacy Coalition stepped in to duplicate some of those activities. Gathering spaces were quickly donated and volunteers came forward to lead the sessions, which allowed the CAC to offer them four days each week.

CAC kicked its efforts into high gear after All 4 CMH (County Mental Health), an advocacy group of mental health community organizations and nonprofits, disbanded last year after the cuts were passed, Thompson said.

In addition to a December town hall meeting in Santa Barbara, a meeting took place last week in Santa Maria. At that gathering, a panel of six people from community-based organizations; alcohol, drug and mental health services; and consumers talked about their vision for the county’s mental health efforts, and took questions from the public. Fifth District Supervisor Joe Centeno and 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr were present at the meeting, which lasted nearly two hours.

After one recent meeting, a woman approached Thompson. Worried that she would lose her access to an aggressive county treatment program, she asked Thompson for help. “She had fresh cut marks running down her arms,” he said. When he asked the county Department of Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services about the cut-off date for service, workers assured Thompson the woman’s services would not end. “Thank God that CAC was there, because we were able to intervene and do something,” he said.

The Consumer Advocacy Coalition is a pet cause for this poodle.
The Consumer Advocacy Coalition is a pet cause for this poodle. (Consumer Advocacy Coalition photo)

Thompson said he isn’t sure exactly how the county would be affected if Proposition 1E passes, but he noted that a large number of people would see services reduced, which in turn would possibly strain emergency rooms and jails, as well as contribute to homelessness. Cuts in services “would be far more costly to the taxpayer here,” he said.

The CAC is California’s most vocal consumer group when it comes to opposing Prop. 1E, Thompson said.

“If we can create a stir here in Santa Barbara County, and if we can do it in a county that’s the third-worst funded in the state, I think people will take note,” he said.

CAC plans to increase its presence on Facebook and YouTube and is planning an April 22 news conference about Prop. 1E.

Thompson admits he is humbly learning about the process by seeking input from others.

“If I don’t hear from the public, I’ll just have to go to Borders and buy Opposing Propositions for Dummies,” he joked.  “Contacting us and saying, ‘Hey, I want to help,’ or ‘Here’s an idea,’ I think that’s what it’s going to take.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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