“Laura’s Law” and Mandatory Treatment Legislation: Worth the Cost?

California and its population density.I was reading through some mental health news today, and a couple of articles about Laura’s Law in California really grabbed my attention.  According to Wikipedia, Laura’s Law is “court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment” for people with a “serious mental illness” and a “recent history of psychiatric hospitalizations, jailings or acts, threats or attempts of serious violent behavior towards self or others.”  This was the first time I ever heard about this legislation, and it piqued my curiousity because of my own experiences with involuntary hospitalization.

While Laura’s Law was passed along with some other legislation in 2008, it must be adopted individually by counties.  DJ Jaffe, Executive Director of Mental Health Policy Org. in California, is upset because only two counties (Los Angeles and Nevada) have put the law into practice so far.  In his Huffington Post article on 8/25, he cites the success of Kendra’s Law in New York (which was the basis for Laura’s Law).  Jaffe explains the law further by stating that it “allows courts, after extensive due process, to order a small subset of people with “severe” mental illness (those likely to become violent without a court order) to accept treatment as a condition for living in the community.” In other words, these people are being forced to have treatment.  In my eyes, forcing something on that “small subset” of people is discrimination.  One fistfight with someone during a psychosis would label a person as “violent mentally ill” for life, and they would be treated like it indefinitely.

What really gets me, though, is that Jaffe blames recent shootings of mentally ill people by California police officers on the fact that funds have been misused, and that Laura’s Law hasn’t been fully adopted.  Really, Jaffe?  I’m sorry to inform you, but people pull the trigger.  Legislation does not, and throwing money at the problem won’t make it go away.  Jaffe says, “Orange County is considering implementing Laura’s Law after the death of Kelly Thomas following his arrest by Fullerton police.” What he doesn’t mention in this article is that the Kelly Thomas was 37 year old man with schizophrenia that 6 police officers beat to death. So if I have this straight, Jaffe believes that the solution to the problem is forcing the mentally ill to accept treatment instead of addressing the real issue here: unnecessary police violence.  My money is that the situation was handled incorrectly due to substandard training.

I’ve been symptomatic from schizophrenia countless times. Sometimes they were very severe. In some cases, I was also incredibly intoxicated (I’m sober now, but many others still struggle with addictions). If I were to have contact with a police officer, and happened to be harmless but having visual hallucinations, then I don’t need the added anxiety that I could be locked away because of my mental illness. That kind of stress is only going to make the situation worse for all parties involved… which is another reason why I don’t see how forcing people into treatment is going to reduce police violence.  Part of the issue is that the police shouldn’t be the ones handling mental illness situations… why are they the front line?  But I’ll go into that in another article.

Many people want the state or county to take care of their loved one who won’t seek help, but involuntary treatment should be a last resort.  I understand that some people don’t recognize that they need help, but taking away a person’s choice, even for their own good, is a grey area. Usually, someone can’t be helped unless they want to help themselves, but it’s different with mental illnesses. I’ve had psychoses so severe that I couldn’t dial a phone. My own parents have had me involuntarily committed twice by stretching the truth during my commitment hearing about how much of a “danger to myself or others” I was. Ten years later, I am still struggling with the fact that they told lies to put me away, even though I might have needed it at the time.

Laura’s Law came into existence because a girl named Laura was shot by a mentally ill person, but the mentally ill who are violent are a tiny minority.  Statistically speaking they are much more likely to injure themselves… and in those cases, treatment often comes too late to save their lives.  Laura’s Law could help these people, but at what cost?  John M. Grohol, PsyD, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of PsychCentral.com, says it best in his response to Jaffe’s piece: “Perhaps [the people of California], like me, are wary of returning to the age when a person can’t refuse treatment even when they are not an immediate danger to themselves or others (you don’t have to be in order to be committed under Laura’s Law)… We let go of strong commitment laws decades ago because the government and professionals clearly demonstrated they did not have the ability to uphold and apply these well-meaning laws.”

According to Grohol, more and more states are passing mandatory treatment legislation similar to Laura’s Law.  It seems to me that legislators and activists in favor of these laws seem to have forgotten the history behind them.  The old laws were neither helpful nor sustainable, and they ignored the civil rights of the people involved.  Sadly, history tends to repeat itself, but I am hoping we can avoid moving backwards in this way.  Instead, we need to find a new way forward.  It’s been said that the definition of insanity is doing something the same way over and over again and expecting a different result… but I guess politicians are not known for being particularly sensible.

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