Still Living With Reagan’s Legacy



As president and governor of California, Reagan led the worst policies on mental illness in generations.

When Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter in November 1980, Republicans also took control of the Senate (53 to 46). Prior to the election, President Carter signed the Mental Health Systems Act, which had proposed to continue the federal community mental health centers program, although with some additional state involvement. The act included a provision for federal grants “for projects for the prevention of mental illness and the promotion of positive mental health,” an indication of how little learning had taken place among the Carter Commission members and professionals at NIMH.

Under Reagan and the Republican-led Senate, the Mental Health Systems Act was discarded. An autopsy could have listed the cause of death as naiveté complicated by grandiosity.

Reagan never understood mental illness. Like Richard Nixon, he was a product of the Southern California culture that associated psychiatry with communism. Two months after taking office, Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, a young man with untreated schizophrenia.

Reagan was also exposed to the consequences of untreated mental illness through Roy Miller, his personal tax advisor. His sons developed schizophrenia; one took his own life and the other killed their mother. Even so, Reagan never exhibited any interest in the need for research or better treatment for serious mental illness.

While some see a building in Laguna Canyon as “the only” solution, it is everyone’s concern and should be an effort by our city to come together with other cities to address the issue not just for housing, but real care, treatment and a much needed live-to-work programs. From its beginnings, the Great Park offered possibilities as a central location for modest and low income housing, including rehab of military dorms for the homeless, biomedical research and a much needed county hospital. The Great Park opportunity disappeared while developers banked land until another bubble emerged. Now they are ready to develop 10,000 new living spaces and the calamities of the era — the homeless and jobless — go unresolved. And just as sure as global warming will again deluge the canyon, is there any will and courage to develop long-term solutions without sacrificing indigenous habitats and placing those most vulnerable in harm’s way?

Are we repeating that grandiosity of naiveté?

Leah Vasquez, Laguna Beach

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