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Thursday, Apr 18 2013 11:00 PM

Modify Laura's Law for mental health patients

By The Bakersfield Californian

Next week, California lawmakers will consider two bills that should help make Laura's Law easier for counties to implement on an individual basis.

Laura's Law is an assisted outpatient mental health treatment law named for Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college sophomore who was murdered in 2001 while working in a Nevada County, Calif., mental health clinic. Her killer was a mentally ill patient who had resisted attempts by his family to force him into psychiatric treatment.

Laura's Law is, in turn, modeled after a New York law, Kendra's Law, that allows court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment, as well as provisions that make it easier for families to compel loved ones to obtain treatment. It is designed for patients whose mental illness or refusal to take medications is so severe that their ability to make rational decisions is impaired.

The two bills, one by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and the other by state Sens. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, should clear obstacles that many feel have made Laura's Law difficult to implement.

Among them: It removes the requirement that only a county board of supervisors can authorize the implementation of Laura's Law; the new version would empower an individual county's department of public health to invoke the law, while allowing counties to limit the number of patients who receive assisted outpatient treatment services. It also clarifies that Mental Health Services Act funds may be used for Laura's Law patients. The MHSA was a ballot initiative enacted by voters in 2004.

Mental health issues remain front and center in public discourse -- as they should -- following the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That tragedy produced a national outcry about guns and access to guns by the mentally ill. Gun regulation legislation has gone nowhere, but it is still incumbent upon us to address issues related to mental illness.

The evidence that timely and appropriate treatment benefits mental health patients is substantial. As was reported here in December, a 2005 study of the New York law found that, among people who had been in the treatment program, there was a 74 percent reduction in homelessness; a 77 percent reduction in psychiatric hospitalizations; 83 percent fewer had been arrested; and 87 percent fewer had been incarcerated. Assaults on others, threats of assault and suicidal thoughts were all markedly down in those studied.

In 2009, researchers with the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University interviewed 76 people who had received assisted outpatient treatment. Some 62 percent told the interviewers that their court-ordered treatment had helped them; 38 percent said the treatment had helped them get control over their lives; and 90 percent said they were more likely to keep appointments and take their medications.

Currently, only Nevada County, where Laura Wilcox was murdered more than a decade ago, has implemented Laura's Law, which has been available to counties throughout California since 2002. That's unacceptably low. Implementation of the law has, at least, been discussed by Kern County officials.

Laura's Law seems worth a second, closer look. A revision of the law by the state Legislature is most certainly warranted.

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