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Monday, December 17 , 2018, 7:35 am | Overcast 53º


Advocates Reiterate Need for Improved Mental Health, Substance Abuse Services

Families ACT! supporters say recent drug deaths highlight the county's rising need for more residential treatment facilities

Launching efforts they hope will trigger a groundswell of support, advocates for people with co-occurring disorders met with the media Tuesday outside of the Santa Barbara County Courthouse.

The group was led by Suzanne Riordan, executive director at Families ACT!, an advocacy group dedicated to supporting the families of people dealing with both mental health and substance abuse issues.

Riordan’s group announced in June that it’s behind a renewed effort to build more residential treatment facilities, of which the area has nearly none, and Tuesday’s event supported that mission.

The gathering also was prompted by the events of last week, after three people died and two others were hospitalized from heroin overdoses. Drug- and alcohol-related deaths nearly tripled in Santa Barbara County last year, according to data from the county Coroner’s Office, and advocates say it won’t get better until there are treatment options.

Riordan has been working with a task force since 2008 to try to find property to house a facility where people can seek treatment and long-term care.

Her son overdosed while on heroin and died in 2005. The men he was using drugs with wrapped his body in a sheet and left him outside. He wasn’t discovered for three weeks, Riordan said.

“They did not have the courage to call the police and get him to a hospital,” she said. “This has got to stop. Drug use is not a crime. ... It’s a mental health issue.”

Santa Barbara City Councilman Grant House, who serves on the task force for co-occurring disorders, attended Tuesday’s news conference.

“Our current systems are not adequate,” he said. “We recognize we will need to have a residential facility of some kind. ... We need to do something about this as a whole community.”

Gordy Coburn, chairman of the Alcohol and Drug Counseling Department at SBCC, said there aren’t enough treatment programs in the area, and those that are available are overloaded. The money slated to go toward building a new jail if voters pass a half-percent sales tax in November also was brought up multiple times throughout the event.

Coburn told the audience that it costs taxpayers $40,000 per year to support each inmate, while $10,000 could effectively treat people with co-occurring disorders not imprisoned.

“Treatment is a lot more cost-efficient,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot fewer deaths and fewer homeless.”

Janice Shay, who works as the program director of Hotel de Riviera, said the mental health and drug treatment system has “not worked for decades. The people who are dying ... are our brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers. They’re ours. These are members of our society that deserve our respect and our dollars.”

“We want treatment, not felonies,” said Jean Lott of Lompoc, the mother of a child with co-occurring disorders. She cited what the country of Portugal has done, approaching drug use as a health problem. In 2001, the country decriminalized possession of small amounts of illicit drugs. If caught with these small amounts, the possessor is either cited, sent to rehab or released.

Tuesday’s news conference kicked off a series of events during the next three months aimed at educating and gathering support for treatment centers, Riordan said. The events will culminate during November’s election, when several big items will appear on the ballot.

One is Proposition 19, also known as the Regulate, Control and Tax Cannabis Act of 2010. Riordan said she doesn’t like marijuana, but that “if we don’t begin to change our drug laws, this will never go away.”

Another local ballot measure is Measure S, the sales tax that would fund the construction and operation of a new county jail. Riordan said her group has mixed feelings about the measure, but that if it does pass, it has a provision that would allow 16 percent of the money to go toward preventing recidivism.

“That’s $5 million per year that could be used for treatment,” she said. “We’d like to have some say about how that money is spent.”

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

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