America has witnessed a number of recent killings involving those suffering from mental illness — from Jarod Loughner in Arizona to Aaron Bassler in Fort Bragg to the beating death of the homeless Kelly Thomas in Fullerton. Our hearts go out to the families of all the victims.
These were preventable tragedies if early treatment were mandated. This issue is personal for us as we have a family member who was hospitalized five times under a 5150 — an involuntary psychiatric hold in which a person is deemed a danger to himself or others or is gravely disabled. Since he lacked insight into his schizophrenia (anasognosia), he never stayed on his medication.
These tragedies have followed a long line of similar deadly outcomes across our country. A common denominator in these events has been the lack of an effective involuntary assisted outpatient treatment program. Assisted outpatient treatment is sustained and intensive court-ordered treatment in the community for those most overcome by the symptoms of severe mental illness.
In 1999, the state of New York enacted Kendra's Law. It was named after a young woman, Kendra Webdale, who died in 1999 after being pushed in front of a New York City subway by a man with a history of mental illness and hospitalizations. Kendra's Law "provides for assisted outpatient treatment for certain people with mental illness, who, in view of their treatment history and present circumstances, are unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision."
New York state's Department of Mental Health has painstakingly tracked the results of this program. Some of these results include a "reduced incidence of hospitalization, homelessness, arrests and incarcerations." There has been a "reduction in days hospitalized for psychiatric care." In addition, "there has been a sustained improvement in overall functioning and reductions in harmful behavior."
Researchers at New York's Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University elicited the following reactions from 76 individuals who had been placed under supervision of Kendra's Law.
"(T)he majority of assisted outpatient treatment recipients interviewed reported that the pressures or things people have done to get them to stay in treatment helped them to get and stay well (81 percent), gain control over their lives (75 percent), and made them more likely to keep appointments and take medication (90 percent)."
Concerning the relationship between outpatient treatment recipients and their case managers, "the majority reported that they were confident in their case manager's ability to help them (87 percent), and that they and their case managers agree on what is important for them to work on (88 percent)."
In 2001, 19-year-old Laura Wilcox was one of three people killed in Nevada City by a mentally ill delusional man who had refused medical treatment. Laura's parents, Nick and Amanda Wilcox, have made it their mission to bring about positive change from the senseless death of their beautiful daughter.
In 2002, California passed Laura's Law which allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment but must be approved and funded by individual counties.
When one considers the positive results of Kendra's Law, isn't it time for Sonoma County to seriously consider Laura's Law as a means to humanely treat those who suffer from an untreated and severe mental illness?
The results of Kendra's Law has shown that outpatient treatment is both a means to humanely treat those who cannot care for themselves and to protect the public from the extremism of untreated serious mental illnesses while spending the public money in an efficient and cost effective manner.