By the looks of it, the Heal immersive sound meditation pod is little more than a refrigerator-sized orange box with a padded bench and red curtain—one that will cost $576,180 by the end of the 2024-25 fiscal year—so it's understandable that a Paso Robles resident said, "I was alive in the '60s when the transcendental meditation gurus were leading thousands of gullible people in Hindu chants ... to effectively relieve them of their wallets," and asked the SLO County Board of Supervisors, who approved the project, "How is this any different?"
"The project," which will be used by the SLO County Behavioral Health Department, is designed to chill out mental health patients before they go to therapy appointments, allowing them through the "use of vibrations and tactile feedback"—and a seven-minute-long audio set created by a musicologist—to "calm their nerves or bring them into a place where they can have conversations with therapists that go deeper than what's immediate,'" yoga teacher and computer scientist Mahesh Natrajan, the founder and CEO of Heal, explained.
If you're rolling your eyes right now, you're not alone. The two dissenting supervisors who voted against approving the project also seem to think it sounds like a lot of New Age hooey.
"I sat here thinking, 'This is like the emperor has no clothing on,'" 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton said at the Dec. 14 board meeting that discussed the Heal pod. "To me, it's outrageous that we're going to spend half a million dollars on this program. I don't know why you have to keep reinventing the wheel. If you have a mousetrap that works, use that mousetrap. I don't even understand this pod concept. A tent! Why can't a tent work?"
Oh Lynn, bless your heart. You admit you "don't even understand this pod concept," yet you dismiss it out of hand? Do you really think claiming it's trying to "reinvent the wheel" is a good analogy? It's a new, innovative treatment concept, and just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it won't work. You probably don't understand lift and force, and yet, look up there. It's a flying plane. Amazing!
And do you really want to compare mental health treatment to "a mousetrap that works"? A lot of the participants who will be using this new treatment are incarcerated or at risk of incarceration. About 46 percent of offenders released in California are reconvicted within three years, so I'd argue the "mousetrap that works" could use some reinventing, and if this contraption is effective, isn't that a positive step forward?
The idea is to alleviate stressors for the county's jail diversion population. Even a cool half a million bucks over four years would be less expensive than incarceration. I don't know what it specifically costs to imprison someone in the SLO County Jail, but according to the Legislative Analyst's Office, the California Legislature's nonpartisan fiscal and policy advisor, "It costs an average of about $106,000 per year to incarcerate an inmate in prison in California."
If it works, it will pay for itself in no time, but that didn't stop Compton from continuing to defecate all over the idea: "It's out of people's paychecks ... that are working hard and barely surviving in this county and in other counties. I honestly think this is an outrageous waste of money, but I guess I'm in the minority here."
Whether it's a waste of money or not remains to be seen, but the funds for the project have already been allocated in one of those nifty government "use it or lose it" schemes. The Heal pod was paid for using Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) "innovation funds," state-allocated money meant for testing and trying new mental health practices.
According to SLO County MHSA coordinator Frank Warren, the funds came with a "three-year clock." If they don't spend the dough, they have to return it to the state. So, yes, they're technically taxpayer funds, but funds already collected and dispersed to try new ways of helping people struggling with mental health problems ... problems that might lead to incarceration. Perhaps best of all, they probably weren't tax dollars collected from you, because as Warren explained, the money came from 2004's Proposition 63, which is a 1 percent tax on incomes totaling $1 million and above. Clearly these aren't people "barely surviving in this county."
Taxing the rich to help the most marginalized and at risk? Count me in!
Naturally, conservative board member 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold joined Compton in her derision toward the project, but surprisingly, fellow conservative and 1st District Supervisor John Peschong voted in favor, saying, "I grew up in Los Angeles in the '60s, too, so I know exactly what we're talking about when we're talking about meditation. But meditation is a little different than what it was 60 years ago."
Wowza! I would not have pegged Peschong as a meditation advocate. He sided with the board's liberal minority to give Heal a whirl. Third District Supervisor Dawn Ortiz-Legg seemed especially jazzed by the meditation and sound therapy idea, noting it may preclude the need for pharmaceuticals.
Hey-hey! What's next? Psilocybin treatment? Count me in for that too! Δ
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