State Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat from San Jose, has a stepson and a sister with mental illness.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Vic Ojakian and his wife, Mary, have been "trying to save lives" by improving access to mental health services after losing one of their sons, Adam, to suicide in 2004.
Both men were among the speakers at a recent forum on "mental health parity" convened by Palo Alto University, which offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in psychology.
While celebrating the Obama administration's Nov. 8 regulations that require insurers to cover treatment for mental illness and addiction just like other illnesses, Beall said such "mental health parity" rules are useless without enforcement.
Complaint-based enforcement is not sufficient, he said, advocating proposed state legislation that would require insurers to submit data to the state about what they're doing to provide mental health parity.
Beall said California could improve lives and save money by directing public resources to treat mental illness in its early stages, before victims get caught up in the criminal justice system.
"Right now we have a system where most of the (state) resources spent on mental health is spent by a system of corrections and incarceration," he said. "Do you want to spend $60,000 a year on the average cost of a prison inmate, or would you rather have a mental health system that provides treatment for people (before they get to prison)?"
Seventy to 80 percent of California prison inmates have mental health or substance-abuse issues, Beall said.
"We eliminated state (mental) hospitals in the 1970s in favor of community treatment, but never really funded that adequately," he said. "We let all those people down, including the veterans coming back from Vietnam.
"Eventually, with the explosion in drug use, we reverted back to institutionalization not in state hospitals, but in state prisons.
"These are funding decisions that will have to be made and looked at differently in Sacramento," he said.
Ojakian described himself as a "parent advocate, just trying to advocate for better mental health services and, frankly, for suicide prevention."
In nine years of activism, Ojakian has, among other things, testified before the U.S. Congress on mental health parity, helped bring suicide-prevention training to local schools and persuaded all three of California's public college and university systems to implement student mental health advisory committees.
"We know a lot of the significant manifestations of mental health conditions are in the late teens and early 20s some show themselves at around age 14 and that's why we work not only in high schools and middle schools but also at the college level," Ojakian said.
"A lot of (mental illness) shows itself in that particular age group, so we want to make sure students know that resources are available, and I hope what we've done in California will ripple across the country."
Palo Alto University President Allen Calvin made an impassioned plea for workplace managers to accommodate employees with mental illness.
With 62 million Americans having a diagnosable mental health problem, Calvin said, "every organization, including ours, has people who have mental health problems."
Calvin said he has employees with mental illness see a psychiatrist, get "workplace suitability studies" and works with lawyers to adjust the environment.
"We have to stand up and be counted, and make it clear that a person who has a mental health problem most of the time is not a risk to the other people in the community," he said. "If a person had a broken ankle or asthma, you'd make an adjustment, and we need to make an adjustment for these folks.
"This is not solved by having the laws. We've got the laws. You've got to stand up."