Breaking news on immigration, war, and atrocities has a way of getting our attention and making recent local issues seem like ancient history. While the major news cycle keeps turning, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors was never the less committed to addressing an issue that has troubled our community–inadequate resources to support those experiencing mental illness. Led by Supervisor Mike Antonovich, the Board of Supervisors last week voted to fully implement Laura’s Law, legislation from 2003 that gives counties the option to pursue court-ordered outpatient treatment for people presenting with serious mental illness.
The original law did not come with a funding source. However in 2013, Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 585, which helped clarify that the Mental Health Services Act funds may be used to fund Laura’s Law. The Act provides increased funding, personnel and other resources to support county mental health programs and monitor progress toward statewide goals for children, transition-aged youth, adults, older adults and families.
Under the new program, a family member, treatment provider, or law enforcement officer will be able to ask the county to file for a court order requiring a person to undergo treatment. People who don’t comply can be taken into custody for a 72-hour psychiatric hold.
The implementation is not without controversy. Many mental health advocates object to the violation of patients’ rights by introducing court- ordered treatment. The recent shootings in Santa Barbara may have prompted this action with the hope that those most familiar with the person living with mental illness may have an additional recourse to avoid senseless tragedy.
Incidents like these shootings give the impression that people living with mental illness are dangerous, requiring court intervention. Although this may be true, it is not always the case. Those experiencing severe cases of mental illness, more often than not, are at risk of doing harm to themselves than to others. The attention on court intervention masks that the risk of harm is considerably greater because of the easy access to firearms. Though the implementation of Laura’s Law introduces another measure to provide needed resources to keep those suffering from mental illness safe, it runs the risk of criminalizing the vulnerable and fails to address the availability of easy access to firearms and other weapons.
In dealing with the parents of the children and youth we serve, I often see the worry in their expressions as they wonder if their child will ever escape the disruptive behaviors that persist in their lives. The anguish of the families of the shooters haunts them as they fear the same fate. However, mental illness is not an inevitable pathway to violence and tragedy. When treated successfully, mental health treatment provides relief from symptoms and hope for a healthy and full life. For the vast majority of those we serve, their treatment ends with an improved level of functioning and a restored sense of well-being. There is hope!
More than any implementation of legislation, what is needed to successfully treat mental illness is for caregivers, especially family members, to have a keen awareness of symptoms. This kind of vigilance, coupled with access to quality care, will go a long way to safeguard those affected by mental illness and will significantly improve the safety of our communities, hopefully without any court-ordered treatment required. Although these steps to treat mental illness do not make the headlines, the results in the lives of those we treat are newsworthy.