Providing mental health services is Job #1 says Nathan Fletcher at La Jolla Community Center talk


San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher has had a storied political career, particularly the last 11 years:

Fletcher joined the U.S. Marine Corps as a reservist in 1997 and became an active duty Marine in 2002. He was honorably discharged in 2007;

Still seeking an opportunity to serve, in 2008, he successfully sought a seat on the 75th Assembly District, which includes La Jolla;

In 2011, Fletcher announced his candidacy for the Mayor of San Diego as a Republican. However, a few weeks after the local Republican Party endorsed his opponent Carl DeMaio, Fletcher announced he had changed parties and was an Independent. Fletcher did not advance to the general election;

In 2014, Fletcher ran for mayor as a Democrat, and again, did not advance to the runoff election;

In 2018, he successfully ran for an open seat representing District 4 on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. On Jan. 7, 2019, Fletcher was sworn in.

But rather than discuss his undulating political experience, as the first guest of the La Jolla Community Center’s latest Distinguished Speaker Series, Aug. 13, Fletcher focused on the unifying theme that spanned it all: mental health.

It’s all about mental health

“Of all the issues I deal with, the No. 1 is always mental health,” he told those gathered. “As an elected official, I care about a lot of things, but it all comes back to mental health.”

He opened with a joke about being confused for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, and the questions he often gets about whether he is connected to Fletcher Hills or Fletcher Parkway (he’s not), and then he discussed his personal background and living in rural Arkansas.

When his time in the military was up, he said he wanted to continue to serve and did so on the State Assembly in his first political endeavor.

“As a combat veteran, you think every day about your friends who died, and think about why you went where you went,” Fletcher explained. “It’s hard to reconcile with the loss of life … when you went into a situation and made it worse. But what I absolutely can’t reconcile is those who survived the war, but can’t survive the peace that follows … and take their own life.

“As a country, we never have a shortage of money when it comes to making combat veterans, but we do (have a shortage) when it comes time to take care of them.”

Fletcher said he got involved in mental health issues for veterans, but wasn’t compelled to run for office again until he read a grand jury report that indicated the County of San Diego was sitting on $168 million of unspent mental health funds.

“That pissed me off because people are in need of help, and here we had this entity that could help people far more than I could as an individual, that wasn’t using its resources,” Fletcher said.

Now, as a County Supervisor, he said one of this top priorities is mental health and substance abuse, which he sees as one issue given the “co-occurring rate is 90 percent.”

“Ideas in our society are changing around mental health, which I see as a good thing,” he explained. “There is no difference in my mind if you are bi-polar or diabetic; either way, you have an illness and we should treat it. There is no stigma for people who are diabetic because they didn’t choose to be diabetic. Why is there a stigma around mental health or addiction?”

Fletcher noted that he is addicted to nicotine and used to use tobacco products. “I crave it,” he said, adding he now chews nicotine gum as an alternative.

Changing face of addiction

“These days, we’re talking a lot about treating people,” Fletcher continued. “And let’s be honest about why. It’s not new that we have kids addicted to drugs, it’s new that we have white, middle-class kids addicted to drugs. The opioid crisis started in white, middle-class communities with parents who were over-prescribed pain pills and their kids took them, got addicted, and turned to other substances.”

But, he noted, it is going to take more.

“We have to build out an integrated, coordinated, effective system to treat mental health and substance abuse,” Fletcher said, adding he started by requesting to fellow Supervisors that an existing building in Hillcrest be converted into a next-step facility for those who are discharged from the nearby hospitals to get them on a path to success.

Elaborating during the question-and-answer session that comes with every Distinguished Speaker event, Fletcher said housing for those with mental illness and those with substance abuse issues was a major hurdle.

Supportive housing units

“After I was elected, we were able to track down $127 million in state funding for permanent supportive housing,” he said. “Mental illness is not a temporary problem; these are folks who need permanent services. And now we are in the process of trying to get that built. I will tell you, everyone wants us to build these units, as long as we don’t build the units near them. Every community has to shoulder some of this. But we can do this in a way that preserves the character of the community and it works.”

The second issue is the recent closing of in-patient psychiatric facilities. In these cases, Fletcher is calling for a state audit of these systems and has threatened to pull their state funding until they reinstate the psychiatric facilities.

“We have to get these in-patient psychiatric beds back. But the reality is, if we build out a regional system of care, we can stop people from having to go to the psychiatric wards,” he said.

Other audience questions dealt with the status of the Tijuana River pollution, Fletcher’s thoughts on the rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump, development options within the region, and more.

UP NEXT: At 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10 the La Jolla Community Center, 6811 La Jolla Blvd., will host Distinguished Speaker Tom Patterson discussing his experience at surviving a serious superbug infection through the heroic scientific efforts of his wife Steffanie Strathdee. Free, but registration is required: (858) 459-0831.