In the wake of the Newtown school shooting tragedy, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg assembled a group of mental health professionals Thursday to call for an expansion of early treatment programs for the mentally ill.
"Last week's horrific shooting sparked a national debate about gun control," Steinberg noted at a news conference. "We have to focus just as much attention and passion on building up mental health services."
Experts assembled at the news conference agreed it is particularly crucial to respond quickly to youths, adolescents and college-age young adults if symptoms begin to emerge.
"With the onset of mental illness in adolescence and young adulthood, the best possible outcome happens when treated right away," said Dr. Cameron Carter of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis. "It's a whole new movement with mental health professionals now to reach out to help young people."
It is still unknown exactly what mental disorder plagued Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old shooter in Newtown, Conn..
In an interview, Dr. Michael Chez, Sutter's director of pediatric neurology, said early reports that Lanza was autistic or had Asperger's syndrome are suspect because the conditions are not associated with violence as a risk factor.
"After practicing for 22 years, I cannot think of a single case in which a patient who is autistic is violent," Chez said.
The autism expert was in agreement with Steinberg: "The big issue is not gun control; it's access to mental health services."
Steinberg, the legislative author of Proposition 63 – the Mental Health Services Act approved by voters in 2004 – said that, even with the law's tax on millionaires, early mental health treatment in California is sadly underfunded.
Every year, 20 percent of Mental Health Services Act money is spent on prevention and early intervention, but Steinberg said he would like to see more funding for those services.
In a letter to Vice President Joe Biden, he proposed a partnership in which the federal government would match what states spend on mental health, dollar for dollar. He also suggested that Proposition 63 could be a model for the nation.
Steinberg's letter, written to Biden because he is heading up efforts to tackle the nation's culture of gun violence, cautioned against linking mental illness to violent outcomes.
"It is a fact that most people suffering quietly from mental illness aren't criminals, let alone mass murderers," Steinberg wrote.
Locally, he pointed to The Effort, a network of Sacramento health and behavioral health clinics, as one example of a provider that has successfully launched a prevention program in its suicide hotline.
The Effort's hotline, (800) 273-8255, is staffed 24 hours a day and receives 22,000 calls annually.
In an innovative program that's being studied by Columbia University researchers, The Effort reaches out to attempted suicide patients upon their release from hospitals. They offer daily call-backs to the patients for 30 days after discharge.
Staying in touch for 30 days after the suicide attempt – a period when experts say the patient is vulnerable to another attempt – has proved successful. The Effort's CEO Jonathan Porteus said that, under that program, the hotline has not lost a single patient.