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Tuesday, Dec 18 2012 11:00 PM

FAWN KENNEDY DESSY: Mental health reform begins with Laura's Law consideration

It is definitely time for reform, and I don't mean gun control. Massacre after massacre demonstrates that our mental health system is broken. Based on news reports I have heard, it appears that Adam Lanza was another in a long line of perpetrators of mass murders who had a chemical imbalance of the brain. He had a disease that we commonly refer to as mental illness. Since he was legally defined as an adult, under current mental health laws, it would have been very unlikely his mother could have done anything to obtain help for him, unless he wanted help. Most often, we find that seriously mentally ill individuals not only lack judgment, but also insight into their mental illness, a condition called anosognosia, and as a result, they will not seek treatment. If they do seek treatment, they will often not take the prescribed medications.

Laws currently in effect in California and most other states effectively discriminate against the most seriously mentally ill people in our society by allowing them to make their own mental health decisions, thus attributing to them a level of judgment and rationality that they generally do not possess as a result of their illness. Thus, these people, when given a choice, "choose" to remain untreated. Loved ones of afflicted individuals beg mental health providers and law enforcement for help, only to be told that there is nothing that can be done unless the person is a present danger to himself or others, or unless he commits a crime. After all, they intone, it is not a crime to be mentally ill, ignoring the obvious, which is that many of the behaviors and conduct of the mentally ill are, in fact, criminal. Nor, they say, is a mentally ill person more likely to commit a violent crime than any other person. That statement ignores the fact that in order to hold true, such a person must be in treatment for the disease.

Mental health reform is a must so that the door to treatment is not slammed in the face of those too ill to voluntarily seek treatment. But, until then, our community can help bridge the treatment gap by insisting that our Board of Supervisors implement Laura's Law. This law was enacted in 2002 after an untreated mentally ill person opened fire on workers at a mental health clinic in Nevada City, Calif. Laura Wilcox, a young worker, was one of the people killed, and it is her parents who championed the enactment of the law. Laura's Law is a process set up through the county mental health system to compel a person to treatment before they decompensate to the point of becoming a danger to themselves or others. Under Laura's Law, a family member can petition the mental health director for help. The person is contacted and provided an opportunity to engage in assisted outpatient treatment. In some cases, a court order may be obtained in order to enforce the treatment plan. There is no forced medications, and no confinement in a hospital or other facility. Forced treatment and confinement only occurs in a hospital setting, after a person becomes a danger to himself or others.

With a budget in excess of $100 million annually, the Kern County Mental Health Department indicates we do not have enough money to implement Laura's Law. This edict followed a request by the Kern County Board of Supervisors late last year that the mental health director explore Laura's Law. A "study" group was formed by a county official who is a known opponent of Laura's Law. The discussions at the "study" group were disturbingly void of an analysis of Laura's Law or the financial impacts relating to its implementation.

The Board of Supervisors urgently needs to conduct a neutral, informed analysis of the implementation of Laura's Law in this county. I have no doubt that with a little innovation and streamlining, funds could be allocated from the mental health budget for Laura's Law, a law that has proved effective in California's Nevada County in engaging mentally ill people in treatment before tragedy strikes.

Fawn Kennedy Dessy of Bakersfield has practiced law since 1979, specializing in real estate law. Community Voices is an expanded commentary of 650 to 700 words. The Californian reserves the right to edit all submissions for length and clarity.

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