Angry Psychiatrists Denounce Threatened Mental Health Cuts

Times Staff Writer

A group of psychiatrists warned Monday that Gov. George Deukmejian’s threatened budget cut of nearly $230 million in mental health funds would wipe out psychiatric services to all but the most chronically mentally ill.

Issuing what they called a “declaration of conscience,” the psychiatrists from northern and southern regions of the state joined together to deliver a broad indictment of the state’s mental health program.

“Very few people who need treatment get it, and for many the treatment they receive is questionable at best,” said the statement issued by the California Psychiatric Assn.

Appearing at a Capitol press conference, the psychiatrists warned that if Deukmejian’s threatened budget cuts go through, mental health services would be limited to individuals “only when suicidal, homicidal or so grossly impaired that they cannot survive without it.”

“Overcrowding is the rule rather than the exception everywhere throughout California,” the psychiatrists said as they angrily criticized Deukmejian for using mental health patients as “pawns” in his political fight with the Legislature over the budget.


Deukmejian’s spokesman, press secretary Kevin Brett, said the governor believes he will be forced to make the mental health budget cuts unless the Legislature agrees to suspend legal requirements for automatic spending increases in other health, welfare and education programs.

“These are reductions that the governor very clearly does not want to make. But it is clear that if the Legislature does not act, he will have no other choice,” Brett said.

Dr. Thomas Ciesla of St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica told reporters that doctors are already being faced with turning away chronically mentally ill people who show up at local hospitals because all the beds are full.

In some places now, patients are forced to sleep on mattresses on hospital floors, and violent individuals are “chained” to beds in other parts of the hospital when there is no room in the psychiatric units, the doctors said.

One of the doctors said the budget cuts, if they go through, could pose a danger to public safety.

“Surely mentally ill people will die or kill others as a result of this budget cut,” said Dr. Jay Shaffer, who works in San Diego County.

Ciesla, joined by Shaffer and three other psychiatrists at the news conference, said, “We are not talking about amputating a little piece of (local mental health programs). We are talking about cutting the head of the system right off.”

Deukmejian’s plan would cut some money from state mental hospitals, but the lion’s share, about $200 million, would come from local mental health programs.

The state assumed a major share of financial responsibility for local mental health programs in the late 1950s, when it initiated a program designed to treat patients in communities rather than state mental hospitals.

A recent report by the state legislative analyst, the Legislature’s nonpartisan budget adviser, showed that local mental health programs during the 1980s were not being given enough money by the state to keep up with inflation and increasing numbers of mentally ill patients.

As a result, the analyst’s report cited “overcrowding in psychiatric emergency room waiting areas resulting from a lack of available beds for placement of patients.”

The psychiatrists indicated that the problem is much worse than the analyst’s report suggests.

9 of 10 Turned Away

Their statement said that San Diego County refuses to admit nine out of 10 people seeking hospitalization for acute mental illness, because of lack of beds. It noted that Los Angeles County, as a result of budget problems, has proposed a cut of $18 million in mental health programs, which could lead to the closing of eight outpatient clinics.

In San Francisco County, the statement said patients are admitted to hospitals only when they are legally considered a danger to themselves or others.

“The gravely disabled are most often treated in the emergency room and sent away on the same day,” the report said.