On Tuesday, May 21, dozens assembled in spite of the unseasonably cold weather in the Courthouse Sunken Gardens to see a free screening of the film 55 Steps, starring Hilary Swank and Helena Bonham Carter. Shown as part of Mental Health Awareness Month, the movie is based on a groundbreaking legal case that established the rights of the mentally ill to refuse medications — if they were deemed competent. This reflects the leanings of the county’s mental-health czar Alice Gleghorn, a position at odds with many mental-health advocates who support programs such as Laura’s Law.
The county supervisors approved a three-year test run for Laura’s Law, which gives judges the right to order treatment but also mandates aggressive outreach efforts on the part of mental-health case workers. To date, that program has generated 100 referrals, and 67 people have been seen. Of those, 25 percent accepted voluntary treatment, 7.5 percent got court-ordered treatment, and 48 percent did not meet the eligibility criteria. In the past five years, Gleghorn’s department has expanded services, though the demand has continued to outstrip supply. Its budget has increased by $23 million during the same period.
Five years ago, the county spent $3 million to “conserve” mentally ill clients in facilities located in other counties; none exist in Santa Barbara. This year, the estimate is $5.2 million. In the past year, there’s been an 84 percent increase in the number of days spent in the county’s locked psychiatric health facility (PHF) by criminal defendants who’ve been deemed “incompetent to stand trial.” Patients sent to the county’s PHF stay, on average, four days longer than two years ago. Now patients discharged from the PHF can see a counselor within four days, rather than the 20 days it took two years ago.