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Patricia Thornton – Sowing the Seeds of Change

By February 1, 2018February 7th, 2018No Comments

Patricia Thornton, a longtime Interim donor, was also a co-founding Board member in the agency’s early days. She remembers fondly her early involvement with Interim in the 1970’s. Her relationship with the agency began when she was contacted by Malcolm Jones, who worked for Monterey County Adult Protective Services, to write a proposal to start a residential treatment facility and program for people with mental illnesses.

At the time, Patricia had just recently moved to the Monterey area, having finished her Masters in Sociology at San Jose State University. Her Master’s thesis was on the closure of state mental health hospitals. Through her research, she understood the dynamics of how the closure of state mental hospitals were impacting communities, and the need for Interim.

In 1959, before the passage of Medicaid, the number of patients in State mental health hospitals had reached a peak of 37,500. In 1965, the government passed Medicaid and Medicare at the Federal level. States, including California, became immediately incentivized to move patients out of state mental institutions and into community nursing homes and general hospitals because Medicaid excluded coverage ‘for people in institutions for mental diseases’. This effectively deinstitutionalized the provision of care by the States.

By 1967, when Ronald Reagan became Governor, the number of patients in California State mental health institutions had already declined to 22,000. That same year, the California legislature passed the Lanterman-Petris Short Act, also regarded as the ‘patient’s bill of rights’ which made the involuntary hospitalization of people with mental illness much more difficult. By 1973, the number of patients in California State mental health hospitals had fallen to 7000.

It was in this context, that tens of thousands of people who had been receiving institutionalized mental health care in California, in some cases for most of their lives, were being released back into communities that had little support resources or housing. These well-meaning policies were meant to end the wholesale warehousing of mental health patients in State institutions. State mental health institutions were widely condemned for their abysmal living conditions and inhumane treatment of patients. But the policies had unintended consequences due to the woeful lack of housing and support options at the community level.

Patricia remarked that Santa Clara County had been transferring patients to residential care facilities like board and care homes, which was ‘something’, but smaller communities like Monterey had nothing. Medications were not very evolved either, and had serious side-affects. This meant people were able to easily identify someone with a mental illness, making a successful community integration nearly impossible. Stable housing paired with social rehabilitation was critical if patients were ever going to transition back into their communities.

The Monterey County Department of Mental Health approved Patricia’s proposal and provided the seed money for Interim’s first residential transitional housing project, the 12-bed halfway house called the Monterey House.

Patricia went on to work for CHOMP in the mental health unit, and left the Monterey area in 1983 to pursue a doctorate in Organizational Sociology at Stanford University. She is now a professor at Texas A&M University and Grand Challenge Initiative Faculty for Sociology and Entrepreneurship.

She has enjoyed watching the phenomenal growth of Interim from afar. She believes this is partially due to its expansion into building housing options in the 1980’s and Barbara Mitchell’s effective leadership. Maintaining affordable housing for people with mental illness allows us to meet their other needs while providing stability.

Patricia Thornton, Founding Interim Board Member, Donor, and Supporter