I write on January 31, the eve of the one-year departure from my job of 22 years. I left the Hollywood BID on February 1, 2019 to make myself fully available to keep front and center a vision for a new approach to mental health care. It has been a rich blessing to have the gift of time to be available to venture outside of Hollywood and to be more fully present as I sit with people to hear their stories and observations. Given the luxury of designing my days, I am learning a lot.
I have been able to go to many places — Trieste, of course (twice). But also Rome, and regions in Southern Italy. Closer to home, I’ve been to Minneapolis and spent time with their intrepid outreach workers for the Minneapolis Downtown Improvement District. At a summit I facilitated in Minneapolis, I met homeless outreach professionals from two dozen cities across the country, including Seattle, Orlando, Boston and Houston. This – the plight of people with untreated mental illness left to languish on our streets — is a national crisis unfolding; not just limited to Los Angeles.
I travelled to Orange County to sit for a couple hours to hear the frustrated observations of a nurse who had worked with mentally ill inmates in the LA County jail system for over 20 years.
I was privileged to participate in a day-long conference organized by the intrepid Janet Hayes of Healing Minds in New Orleans where I could hang with some of my heroes and mentors in this work.
I’ve been able to learn about organizations who are doing super-human work: The Progress Foundation in San Francisco; Exodus Recovery in Lincoln Heights. I have toured Village Family Services in North Hollywood, the Alcott Center for Mental Health and Hillview Mental Health Center in Pacoima. One does not have to travel all the way to Trieste to witness hospitality and human-centered care. We can do this in the US; we just have to commit to loosen our rules, trust people’s judgment, engage the community and reimburse for this mode of service delivery.
I feel hopeful about the leadership in our county and in our departments of mental health and health services. Our Los Angeles board of supervisors recognizes the importance of improving services to people living with mental illness in our county. We’ve seen positive action to shore up our board and care system, and pursue alternatives to incarceration for people with mental illness.
Participating in a convening sponsored by the California Hospital Association, my eyes were opened to the challenges faced by hospital social workers who have few options when it comes to discharge planning for their homeless patients.
I have met with folks involved in our justice system – judges, public defenders and deputy district attorneys — who desperately hope for a better way to shepherd people into treatment and housing stability.
When in New York last month on personal business, I didn’t try to get tickets to a Broadway production. Rather, I used my free time to learn more about the New York “right to shelter” system and how people with mental illness are treated in that city. I met with local BID leaders, the Manhattan Institute, the Greenberger Center for Social and Criminal Justice, Fountain House to discuss the prospects of creating a clubhouse for people living with mental illness in Hollywood and I visited a safe haven for people with mental illness.
But the situations that have rocked my world involve listening to the stories of parents, siblings and patients in our system who feel completely derailed and marginalized. This is where the suffering lies. My heart grows heavy as I absorb these stories and I am overwhelmed by my inability to do anything to help. But I sense that I am absorbing their pain for a reason, so I can join in their voices for change. And I pray for them.
It’s a mystery why I’ve been called into this work. In my family story, there is no mental illness. I took one Psych 101 class in college.
I lead with my credential as a human being who cares — and I’m finding in my journey that there are hundreds and hundreds like me. I speak to neighborhood groups and I am contacted afterwards by people who feel frustrated because they don’t know HOW to help, WHO to call, WHAT to do. When this feels like a completely impossible undertaking, I am buoyed that if there are hundreds like me in this county, then there are thousands and thousands in this state. Likely, there are hundreds of thousands in this country. How do we link these voices? Could this be a movement in the future? Possibly.
Staying focused, I am placing my hope in our mental health pilot slated for Hollywood. I am grateful for the vision of Dr. Jonathan Sherin, the director of LA County Department of Mental Health, to take the risk to pursue this bold initiative and to the state Oversight Committee for the Mental Health Services Act who voted to support it last May. Here we will have opportunity to show what is possible. When there is new news about its launch, you will be the first to know.