As Pacific Clinics celebrates its 90th anniversary advancing behavioral health care in the San Gabriel Valley, President and CEO Jim Balla said there is one true way to honor the milestone: fight the stigma attached to mental illness.
“As we address stigma, we bring to light that these are diseases,” he said. “Nobody asks for these. Just like nobody asks to have cancer or childhood diseases. And the good news is there is appropriate medication that has evolved to treat symptoms. And then we wrap around case management so individuals can recover and live productive lives.”
Janice Lee-McMahon, a board member with Pacific Clinics, agreed, noting that society often thinks the worst of those who have mental issues.
“If you hear the words mental health, people usually have a negative association,” she said. “We think of the homeless or people who committed a crime. We associate a sadness with it. We don’t do that with physical health, but they’re equally important. We have a lot of empathy for people who have disabilities. We accept that, but we have no empathy for people who have a mental illness issue.”
Balla said the organization has come a long way since its humble beginnings. It now has 81 locations throughout Southern California, with approximately 24,000 clients being assisted by 1,000 professional medical staff.
“It was founded in 1926 in Pasadena,” he said. “At that time we were the Pasadena Guidance Clinic. It evolved from there, and for 90 years we have been in the greater Pasadena area.”
Balla said Pacific Clinics’ clientele is unique as these patients don’t generally seek out the agency’s guidance. But that doesn’t stop the organization from trying to do its job to the best of its ability, he added.
“The interesting thing is that we’re a specialty mental health practice,” he said, citing schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. “Our sole focus is on treating the severely mentally ill population. These are individuals most often referred to us by the county or by our outreach. A lot of the individuals you see on the street are homeless. Oftentimes, these are the ones we treat.”
Balla said that usually it is not just the patient affected by the mental health issues, but also the family — or some unit acting as a family — that does not know how to properly care for the ailment.
“A lot of the people we see as adults are detached from families,” he said. “Oftentimes, families don’t know how to cope. Part of that is we treat them where they are. We want to bring the family, and whether that is a nuclear family or otherwise, we want to bring the folks who are closest to them. But there are many who are living independently away from family. In a sense it makes it difficult. And we, in a sense then, become their family — a quasi-family.”
Lee-McMahon pointed out that mental illness is an issue that affects many people locally, and more people than most realize.
“Why are we not addressing this critical issue?” she said. “This is so sad. This affects a significant number of people who have no voice. The need for our community — our San Gabriel Valley community — has never been greater. I want to make sure this is something people will be educated about.”
As Pacific Clinics enters its 10th decade of service, one extreme challenge it is facing is Congress possibly repealing the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Balla said this could make things difficult for those who are served by Pacific Clinics.
“In California we have a strong presence and support the basic tenets of Obamacare, but we don’t know what the replacement will be,” he said. “We are concerned that the money will flow through block grants as opposed to these entitlement programs. That creates its own set of issues.”
So what could happen to many clients of the agency?
“They definitely could lose services,” Balla admitted. “But in California, we have a benefit. The benefit is the Mental Health Service Act, which passed in 1997. What that did was it created a one-cent tax on millionaires. That tax has brought in millions of dollars in revenue through the state, which is dispersed through the counties to mental health services. They can’t touch that safety net, which is a blessing.”
Balla added, however, that mental healthcare needs to be part of any comprehensive program as it can be the cause of so many social issues, adding that a joint effort is needed to combat it.
“We need to have solid plans with agencies and solid providers because there is no single answer to it,” he said. “One agency cannot solve it. Together as a network of providers, I think we can impact it. I really think we can. Homelessness is a huge challenge for us. You’ve got to treat the illness. Homelessness is not the illness.”
To find out more information or how to donate to Pacific Clinics, call (626) 254-5000 or visit pacificclinics.org.