Barbara Wilson has worked in the mental health field for most of the last 50 years, and she isn’t going to stop now.
Though Barbara actually retired from her job as a psychiatric social worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health in 1992, she kept receiving pleas from family members of people with mental illness asking for assistance finding treatment, or housing, or other support for their loved ones.
So, Barbara founded Mental Health Hookup, the Santa Clarita-based counseling and advocacy agency she has run on a shoestring budget ever since.
“There were just so many people who needed my help,” said Barbara, who specializes in cases of adults and older adults with serious mental illness.
Following the gutting of the Mental Health Systems Act by President Ronald Reagan, Barbara said she watched the decimation of community-based programs that she had worked to develop for the now-gone State Department of Mental Hygiene. Adults with serious mental illness, it seemed to her, became “disposable.”
It was sad for Barbara, because she had helped with the shift away from locked hospitals to community-based care that started in the 1960s and had seen the trend produce many excellent innovations, including high-quality board-and-care homes run by small operators, apartment buildings with units for people who could be more independent, and social and recreational programs supervised by case managers.
“We created friendship circles in the parks and recreation departments and got board-and-care operators together to do outings. We developed vocational opportunities. There was nothing like it before,” she recalled. “It was a very creative time.”
The trend since, with the rise of homelessness among the mentally ill and a shift again to locking mentally ill people up – only now in jails and prisons instead of hospitals – has been distressing to her.
For the last decade, Barbara has fought for renewed state support for board-and-care homes, which have been closing at alarming rates. She recently gave expert testimony at an informational hearing on the subject that the Steinberg Institute co-hosted at the state Capitol. Such facilities, Barbara says, were once an integral part of the mental health system, but today get little money and are often “shabby,” though they house people with serious mental illnesses who otherwise could be homeless, hospitalized, or incarcerated.
Barbara says hope was restored in 2004 with voter passage of the Mental Health Services Act, which was co-written by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, our founder. The Act gave “some public recognition in California that people with serious mental illness should not have to be completely untreated, critically, that prevention and early intervention was possible.
Barbara was further heartened by Congress’ adoption of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, which prohibited health insurers and plans from charging higher co-pays for mental health services, and the Affordable Care Act, which in 2014 required all new small group and individual market plans to cover mental health and substance use disorder services.
Though federal spending on mental health is targeted with cuts in President Trump’s current budget proposal, Barbara sees the glass half-full, and remains hopeful that the country will rebuild and reconfigure its disjointed mental health systems to better effect.
Barbara remembers vividly, after all, working in a Nebraska asylum in 1967, and seeing the lobotomies and neglect.
“For all the faults in the mental health system, we have still come a long way,” she said.