- Special to The Washington Times - Thursday, January 10, 2013

Mental health is connected to gun violence. The solution is simple: Spend $1 billion per year on Zumba classes, hip-hop car washes and lunchtime yoga so people will feel too groovy to do anything crazy.

At least that’s the method California has used since 2005 — and it thinks the U.S. should write the same prescription for the rest of us.

Even though the program is undergoing an audit amid accusations of waste, California Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg is pressing Vice President Biden to use it as a model for a nationwide initiative.

“We are saving lives,” Mr. Steinberg said in his Dec. 20 letter to Mr. Biden. “What’s working here can work throughout every state in the country.”

Proposition 63, which began funneling money to “fundamental health service programs” in 2005, has brought in $7.4 billion through a tax on California’s favorite revenue source: its wealthiest residents.

Not all of the money went to help mentally ill people — nor was it meant to. In fact, the state’s overall spending on mental health services decreased 21 percent from 2009 to 2012.

One-fifth of revenues raised by Proposition 63 were earmarked for such “mental illness prevention.” The idea is, if people have access to taxpayer-funded drama classes and time for gardening, they will not become mentally ill in the first place. If Adam Lanza only had more opportunities to plant flowers and paint pictures, the theory goes, the Newtown tragedy could have been avoided altogether.

“Investing in prevention and early intervention for people in the early stages of mental illness is a strategy that clearly saves lives,” Mr. Steinberg said in his letter to Mr. Biden. 

But state Assemblyman Brian Nestande, R-Palm Desert, said that during times of financial distress like California is facing now, the state should not be risking money on experimental treatments.

“You’re almost kind of saying, ‘Hey, dream up some stuff to do,’ and it may not be terribly well thought out or useful, ” Mr. Nestande told The Washington Times Wednesday in an interview. “What I had heard from the professionals in this area is that they would rather see the money used to programs that they know are working and are short on money already in those areas. They would not want to see it siphoned off into areas that are unproven.”

Mr. Nestande said he would not suggest that the federal government implement California’s mental health model — or spend money on any new mental health treatment at all. Although mental health certainly is important, he said, that’s really the job of individual states.

“My view would be to have a federal government that’s more of a repository for best practices,” he said.

Katherine Timpf is a Phillips Foundation Robert Novak fellow and a digital editor for Times247. Follow Katherine on Twitter @kctimpf.

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