From his new office at Greenberg Traurig, LLP, Darrell Steinberg can see the dome of the state Capitol — his old office building.

His old office was one of the most powerful in the state: Senate pro tempore, or leader of the California state Senate.

Steinberg wielded that power with an aim to lift up the lives of some of the state’s least powerful citizens — most iconically the mentally ill — to improve the lives of all Californians.

“Mental illness touches all major issues facing our state,” Steinberg says. “health care costs, drug addiction, homelessness, poverty, crime, veterans’ affairs, even the ability of kids to succeed in school if mental illness is present in their family.”

Now, Steinberg has one other new office, where he will accelerate his longstanding advocacy for the 5 percent of Californians with mental illness. That office is at UC Davis Health System.

The termed-out legislator is the director of Policy and Advocacy for the recently launched Behavioral Health Center of Excellence at UC Davis, a role he eagerly took on — at no salary — to continue his advocacy for Californians with mental illness.

In a sense, his work with the center is a homecoming for the UC Davis School of Law alumnus. The center is funded by monies from Proposition 63, the Mental Health Services Act that he spearheaded and that California voters approved in 2004.

Among other services and programs, the ballot initiative allocated innovation funding that helps support two behavioral health research centers, including $7.5 million for a Northern California center at UC Davis and $7.5 million for a center at UCLA.

Advancing leadership

Steinberg’s commitment to the UC Davis center continues his 20 years of devotion to advocacy for the mentally ill. Through his role as policy director, Steinberg will work to bolster public supportfor improving mental-health service delivery in California. To demonstrate the importance of the effort, he ticks off what he considers to be three “incontrovertible facts” about mental illness:

  • It affects almost every family without regard to ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status;
  • Unaddressed mental-health issues pervade almost every important issue in society; and
  • Almost no elected official makes mental health a real priority.

“The third fact is what I want to change,” Steinberg says. “When a significant number of legislators focus on mental-health issues, we will start to see real improvements in multiple areas.”

Steinberg sees his role at the center as an essential adjunct to the leading-edge research and clinical applications taking place within its walls.

His goal is to help ensure that new discoveries are trumpeted to inform public policy. And, as a visiting professor of psychiatry, he looks forward to teaching medical students and engendering in them an appreciation for the importance of advocacy among health care professionals.

“I want to help the next generation of doctors, nurses and other health care professionals to become leading spokespersons in the legislature and the community,” Steinberg says. “Being on the front lines, they can have a tremendous impact.”

A longstanding commitment

Steinberg’s passion for mental-health issues began nearly two decades ago when the City of Sacramento brought a lawsuit against the private charity Loaves and Fishes, which provided food to the homeless and became so “successful” that thousands of homeless people went there for free lunches, resulting in complaints from nearby businesses.

Then serving on the Sacramento City Council, Steinberg joined the late Mayor Joe Serna as the only two council members to vote against pursuing the lawsuit. He delved into the problems of the homeless and learned of the pervasiveness of mental illness in that population — and the lack of resources available to address it.

During his subsequent six years in California’s Assembly and eight years in the state Senate, Steinberg forged a legacy that includes a tremendous body of work to substantially improve mental-health services statewide.

In addition to the Mental Health Services Act, for example, he also sponsored Senate Bill 946, which requires health care plans and insurance policies to provide coverage for behavioral treatment for children with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders. Recommended treatment for young children can involve 25 to 40 hours of therapy per week for up to three years, and without the law the care would otherwise be out of reach for many families.

Close to home

Steinberg knows first-hand the challenges that mental illness can present to a family — and how mental-health services can change lives for the better. His 21-year-old daughter, Jordana, was diagnosed as a teenager with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, a psychiatric illness only recently recognized. Throughout her childhood, Jordana experienced lengthy, violent outbursts of anger on a near-daily basis, which affected her ability to stay in school and severely disrupted her family life.

Years of intensive therapy in a residential treatment center have helped her win that battle. Now a full-time college student with a part-time job, she is herself becoming an articulate activist for the mentally ill, speaking publicly about her challenges and recovery.

Steinberg is quick to point out that it was his daughter’s decision alone to publicly discuss her illness, but he appreciates that she has done so. He feels that an important reason that mental illness is a low priority for most legislators is that there is a strong stigma attached to it: too often, mental illness still elicits blaming of the individual with the illness or the parents of children with mental illness, while physical illness elicits sympathy and an understanding that professional services are essential. People with mental illness who come forward and discuss their challenges, he adds, help normalize the issue and chip away at the stigma.

Steinberg proudly discusses a framed painting on the wall of his Greenberg Traurig office that depicts a white-winged angel hovering over a lake in a dark forest. It was painted and presented to Steinberg by a man with mental illness who said that the angel represents Steinberg’s advocacy efforts, which gave the man the services he needed to turn his life around.

“Interventions work and recovery happens,” Steinberg says. “It is so important to get that message out and make help available to everyone who needs it.”