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Santa Barbara County Mental-Health Advocates Working Together

Looking for Solutions and a Willing Billionaire to Solve Problems

Photo: Paul Wellman Cottage Hospital

Santa Barbara has always had more than its fair share of smart people. Just ask them; they’ll tell you. I know. I was in a room the other day with a bunch of smart people.

There were sandwiches and cans of Coke and a bucket full of ice. The ice cubes were too small for the tongs or the tongs too big for the cubes. Either way, it was an intelligence test we all failed. The table was a big rectangle around which there were fewer seats than there were people. It was a monthly gathering of an organization focused on people with mental illnesses. Many were mental-health whisperers by profession. Some were mental-health shouters by avocation. More than a few had adult mentally ill kids of their own. For at least one, adulthood was a threshold her child would never cross. 

Over the years, I’ve sat around too many such tables. But this one seemed better. Tangible progress was reported. The edges were getting nibbled. Cottage Health, for example, is stepping up, having recently discovered that mental health was at the top of everybody’s list of unmet community needs. Hospital executives from Cottage, Santa Maria’s Marian Regional Medical Center, and Lompoc Valley Medical Center have been meeting with county Behavioral Wellness czar Alice Gleghorn over the past half year or so, talking about forming a partnership to build a desperately needed new mental-health facility. The hospitals, it sounded like, were offering everything but the kitchen sink. I had just caught a snippet of The Godfather Part II while channel surfing recently and the signature phrase “An offer he can’t refuse” wafted to mind. But the situation was complicated. We were cautioned against premature enthusiasm. 

In the room were two heavyweights. One was Barney Melekian, former Number Two at the Sheriff’s Office who now works as high-ranking advisor (HRA) to County Executive Officer Mona Miyasato. Barney ​— ​as he is best known in the halls of power ​— ​has been weighing in on mental-health and law-enforcement issues since 2002, when he delivered a 500-page report to the United States Congress. Now that Barney is working for Mona, I don’t expect him to walk on water. I do, however, expect miracles. The other was Paul Erickson, who runs Cottage Health’s Psychiatric Department. He is a deft and sensitive soul who moves a lot of air. A miracle from him would be nice, too. At one point, Barney said, “If we’re not careful, we might actually get something done.” Erickson would later add ​— ​though not in direct response ​— ​“If there’s no leader, no champion, you’ll talk and talk and talk and only have a long conversation.”

It’s been a very long conversation. 

The name nobody mentioned was that of Leon Evans. He is the force behind a 22-acre mental-health campus in San Antonio, Texas, with treatment options for the most psychologically radioactive and addicted to everything in between. Evans, now in his seventies, is a bear of a man who actually wrestled bears in his youth. Then he changed adult diapers for a living. Then he worked as a social worker and then in mental health. By 2000, Evans was a certified systems whisperer, and San Antonio’s mental-health system was in full bleed-out, meltdown mode. Texas today is ranked second from last when it comes to mental health spending, but the San Antonio model that Evans shoehorned, crowbarred, browbeat, backslapped, and pretty-pleased into existence is now the gold standard against which all other systems fall short. 

Evans, it must be noted, did not do this alone. One story has it that a retired executive with Vaquero Energy was watching TV on his couch with his wife when a PSA Evans put together aired. The executive’s wife was moved, and soon Mr. Vaquero was making a seven-figure donation to the cause. From there, it steamrolled. Everyone got involved. 

I’m looking for a steamroller. Santa Barbara is famous for its rich people. The government of Santa Barbara County has oceans of land. It has a credit rating other nations would weep for. Yet for the past 40 years, we have insisted on exporting our mentally ill people to facilities in other counties that cost us twice as much. That doesn’t account for the gratuitous toll such travel takes on affected families. But look at a dog crossways in Santa Barbara, and you’ll have a mob demonstrating in front of a judge’s house, demanding permanent incarceration.  

Only at the end of this meeting would I learn that staffing shortages at the Sheriff’s Office had forced the sheriff to pull the plug on a promising pilot program that teamed mental-health crisis worker Bradley Crable with Sheriff’s Office Deputy James McKarrell. The timing couldn’t have been worse. This team had just responded to a possibly suicidal 27-year-old only to find he was packing enough heat, ammo, and body armor to supply both sides in a third-world insurrection. Big Success. 

Miraculously, since this was reported, Sheriff Bill Brown figured out how to extend the life span of this program past its demise date of March 24. Its expiration date has been delayed, I am heartened to hear, until June 30. Now Sheriff Brown is praying that a mental-health diversion grant comes through by then. 

Small victories count, this one especially. 

Anyone have the phone number of Leon Evans?

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