At first glance, it’s hard to imagine what would bring two San Francisco supervisors and the son of the late Robin Williams onto the same stage on a chilly Wednesday night. But Supervisor Hillary Ronen, Supervisor Matt Haney, and Zak Williams stopped by Manny’s at 16th and Valencia to talk about something that touches many of our lives, and theirs more than most: mental health.
“It was profound for many people to see someone who devoted his life to entertaining and delivering happiness and laughter and joy take his life,” said Williams of his father, who died by suicide in August 2014 in his Marin County home. “That shed light on an issue that a lot of people had been experiencing, or are currently experiencing, or will experience down the line.”
Williams said that suicide, depression, and addiction have become an “epidemic, plain and simple.”
And this is not just the case for the most “forward-facing” in our society, those who make newspaper headlines like his father, Kate Spade, and Anthony Bourdain — celebrities of seemingly endless means.
“The city has identified 4,000 people who are homeless and who either have a serious mental illness or substance abuse addition — 4,000 people,” said Haney, who represents the mid-Market area and the Tenderloin.
That’s why he and Ronen are pushing for their overhaul of San Francisco’s mental health system — a plan called “Mental Health SF.” In an effort to prevent the system from spitting people back onto the street, the plan would infuse $100 million into the existing $400 million the S.F. Department of Public Health already spends on mental health services.
“This is not something that was talked about openly all the time, and acknowledged that these diseases of the mind should be treated equally to diseases of the body,” said Ronen, who explained that she began working on Mental Health SF years ago when looking for long-term solutions to homelessness — but discovered major deficiencies in the mental health system.
On Tuesday, Mayor London Breed unveiled a dueling ballot measure to Ronen and Haney’s Mental Health SF, called “UrgentCareSF.” The mayor’s plan would more narrowly focus on mental health among the city’s homeless population. It includes creating 800 new treatment beds, hiring more caseworkers and health care professionals, and creating “sobering centers.”
But Haney charged that Breed and the Health Department could do all of this immediately and without a ballot measure — as they run the system. “So it’s a poison pill to try to kill Mental Health SF,” he said.
Manny Yekutiel, the owner of Manny’s, explained that he coordinated his three guests to explore different sides of San Francisco’s mental health conundrum.
“The reason I thought it was important is because mental health care is a very personal issue, and there is an emotional, personal, and familial connection to this issue,” Yekutiel said. “But … there’s also policy we can use to address it.”
Ronen and Haney’s plan would create “critical case managers” who would shepherd people through the maze of services; establish a “crisis response outreach team” that would work with people less likely to accept services; expand community mental health services “at all levels”; and create an “Office of Private Insurance Accountability” that would pressure insurers into providing mental health services that people may have a difficult time receiving.
“As someone who has been severely affected by your dad’s crisis,” Rachel Rodriguez, a social worker in San Francisco, asked Williams, “what [service] was the most helpful to you and how can Hillary and Matt incorporate that into Mental Health SF?”
Williams said Mental Health SF “addresses chronic and crisis-oriented programming in a meaningful way.” But he said he would like to see prevention in networks of families and communities “fleshed out further.” He said he would like to see prevention programs brought closer into communities that he thinks suffer from extreme “isolation.”
He also said gathering data and learning from it to examine “what is having a positive impact culturally, economically, and on a personal level for the constituents that make up this wonderful city.”
“My story is not unique,” Williams added. “Everyone’s story is important.”