(Note from Executive Director: CAMHPRO continues to advocate for the peer voice in all aspects of mental health policy at the state level. With a strong stance of opposition to Senate Bill 326 and 43, CAMHPRO has been present at hearings and representing our members in meetings with legislators and policy makers to voice concerns and to offer solutions and changes. Most recently, CAMHPRO, as part of the Peers Advocating for Rights and Recovery (PARR) coalition, joined in a convening on Aug. 22 for hearings about Senate Bill 326. PARR partners, including CalVoices, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of California, Mental Health America of California, California Youth Empowerment Network, and Disability Rights California, invited peers from across the state to join at the event in solidarity with t-shirts and speaking up during the hearings. Groups met in front of the Capitol building throughout the day to support each other and to network. Katy Sommerfeld, CAMHPRO Office Administrator, participated in the event and was later invited to be a witness at a hearing the following week. This is a story of her experience and observations.)
Many look at “mental illness” as something wrong with people. Instead, what might ask, what is wrong with the world we live in.
This came to me as I sat and listened at the Joint Hearing of the Assembly Health and Community Development Committees on SB326 on August 22. I continued to reflect on how this is not a mental health or behavioral health crisis. This is not a housing crisis. This is a crisis of humanity.
Evidence was right in front of me. A panel of assembly members raised significant concerns about the proposed “Modernization of the MHSA.” There was also support for the bill. It baffled me that the community of peers, advocates and other stakeholders that fought for the passing of MHSA back in 2004 were not part of the decision to “modernize” it now. What I saw in front of me was evidence of what happens when policies are created without the people affected, the very opposite of “Nothing about us, without us.”
This has been my first year involved with state level advocacy. I am so incredibly grateful and indebted to CAMHPRO for opening my eyes as a peer to how important advocacy is to the preservation of our movement. It is equally fascinating and intimidating to learn and practice this level of advocacy. After being in several meetings and settings where strong peer advocates were expressing the facts and their opinions about the current mental health legislation landscape, I was very excited to be a part of getting peers from all over California to gather in our state capital, Sacramento. This was truly a mass effort headed by the PARR (Peers Advocating for Rights and Recovery) coalition. I had the unique opportunity as a staff member of CAMHPRO, alongside my colleagues, Amy Breckenridge and Danny Medina, to help with the set-up in the early morning hours, to greet and welcome peers as they arrived in front of the capitol. I also got to lead dozens of peers to the Capitol Annex Swing Space to attend the hearing and experience that process in-person with Avery Hulog-Vicente, CAMHPRO Advocacy Coordinator.
As I sat in the hearing, I was compelled to start writing down different thoughts and feelings that were sparked by the dialogue between the presenters and the assembly members. I started writing down what I would say if I had the opportunity during public comment. I was empowered, inspired and uplifted by the endless and affirming support I felt emanating from a sea of peers in bright, lime green shirts that read “No on SB326” and “Save the MHSA.” However, it wasn’t my time to be heard and I couldn’t stay for public comment. After feeling so much adrenaline and the pride of how our peer community came together that day, I felt deflated when I heard that the Assembly cowered and voted the bill through in support of Governor Newsom.
This feeling lingered. So when I was meeting with a group of fellow advocates and they were looking for a peer who would testify against the bill, I shared my willingness. This was the first time that I offered to speak at a state level hearing. The reason I did so stemmed from the feelings I felt from being a part of the Aug. 22 Stop SB 326: MHSA "Modernization" Day with my fellow peers. So on Aug. 28, less than a week later, alongside a fellow peer, I testified at the Committee on Housing and Community Development. Once again, it was the support I felt from my peers that got me through. My colleagues encouraged and helped me with talking points. My fellow PARR coalition members supported me remotely leading up to the hearing and even some in person.
I knew that what I had to say wasn’t likely to change the votes, but what I had to say was my way of literally asserting that I am done being quiet. I hope that by reading this, others who are new or have never spoken up realize that they too have something to say. If you don’t consider yourself an advocate, know that by being a peer, you are one. The only way we can fight these threats against our MHSA is by taking action and speaking up. Something else I learned is there are many ways to be an advocate, whether you take to social media (which I highly encourage in this day and age), speak to your inner circles, or testify on a state level. It all counts.
By excluding the voices of peers, advocates, and other stakeholders, we risk perpetuating the same systemic flaws that have contributed to the crisis of humanity we face today. People’s lived experience, insights, and expertise are invaluable in shaping effective and inclusive mental health policies. To truly modernize MHSA, decision-makers must prioritize collaboration and ensure that all relevant parties have a seat at the table.
By Katy Sommerfeld