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California Underfunds Mental Health Programs Then Blames State's Mental Health Problems on Yoga

So-called "ballot box budgeting" comes in waves. California voters tend to draw back from spending money in bad economic times, and will fund more programs in the heydays. 2004's Prop 63 hit as we were clearly on the upswing after the 2001 recession. The real estate bubble was rapidly building, making everybody feel wealthy. And Prop 63 went for an undeniably good cause — protecting some of the most ignored in California, people with mental health issues.

As both president and governor, Ronald Reagan went about slashing money for social services, especially mental health. The results are written everyday on the streets of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many other cities across the state and nation. Mental health institutions closed down, and the homeless population went up. California spent about $5 billion before the measure, but could certainly use the additional resources.

But after the measure went into place a number of things happened. As you can tell from the date, we are talking peak of the real estate bubble. Once the bubble burst, mental health spending got slashed from that $5 billion high. Although Prop 63 wasn't intended to serve as backfill for cut dollars, it ended up serving those purposes.

Recently, the state auditor released a report on Prop 63 spending, which criticized the state for a lack of spending oversight on those funds. But the news that was getting all the headlines, perhaps because the auditor highlighted them because they sound juicy, were some of the more effective programs. Programs like yoga and gardening were shown to have good outcomes for the mentally ill and to have both therapeutic and preventative value.

On KQED's Forum today, some of the original authors of that measure debated how the money has been spent. Much of the debate is a little technical, depending on how you define prevention and early treatment, etc. There can be questions of effectiveness, and clearly the state needs to do a better job of consolidating outcome data. But, the question of whether we need to make more substantive changes is still out there.

Mental health services are still underfunded, as most social services are in this state. But we can always do more to ensure that our dollars work as effectively as possible.

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