February 22, 2010

Finally, new laws to treat the mentally ill before they hurt themselves or others passed by state House

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rita_hibbardwebNew legislation making it easier to detain and treat mentally ill people who pose a danger to themselves or others has passed the state House of Representatives.

The only question is, why did it take so long, and why is passage in this admittedly tough economic year far from certain?

“I’ve been advocating it for two decades,” Dr. Cristos Dagadakis, medical director of the crisis-intervention service at Harborview Community Mental Health Services, told The Seattle Times. “I think this is an opportunity to get people into care quicker.”

InvestigateWest reporter Carol Smith wrote about this problem  in 2008 after the stabbing of  Shannon Harps by a mentally ill man who had cycled in and out of the judicial system for decades. Her work also examined the inability of the family of Isaac Zamora to get him the mental health care he desperately needed. Zamora finally ended up behind bars for good when he shot and killed six people in Skagit County in 2008. Carol won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for her work examining the state’s ailing mental health care system and its impact on one family.  Now, perhaps in part because of the focus Carol and fellow InvestigateWest journalist Daniel Lathrop put on examining the true financial and societal costs of the issue, the Washington Legislature is taking a hard look at he issue.

And perhaps the Legislature is recognizing that the problem  just won’t go away. Despite many years of experts in all fields wishing really hard that it would.  Just this year,there were more senseless killings, apparently by perpetrators who gave law enforcement, the judicial system, and loved ones every sign of being dangerous and unstable, but were allowed to continue to walk our streets in desperate need of care they failed to get. The shooting of four Lakewood police officers, for example, is testimony to that. The man who shot those officers had been ill, unstable, and making frightening threats, but no one was able to stop him from spiraling out of control and killing others.

The proposed law would broaden the criteria for holding the dangerous mentally ill against their will. Instead of “imminent likelihood” of harm to themselves or others, it would be necessary only to show “substantial” likelihood of harm under the proposed law. The legislaton also would allow those making the commitment decision to consider information offered by family members and co-workers.

It’s testament to Washington’s reluctance and inability to deal with its mentally ill patients that the state has nearly the fewest number of psychiatric beds per 100,000 population than any state in the nation.

But as Dr. Peter Roy-Byrne, chief of psychiatry at Harborview Medical Center told Carol Ostrum of The Seattle Times, that is not a good reason to preserve the status quo.

“That’s like saying, ‘We don’t have enough room in the emergency room, so we won’t see anybody with heart attacks.’ “

Eleanor Owen, who I first met in the 1980s covering the social issues beat for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, has been working on this issue a long time. The changes in the law appear modest, she told Ostrum, but they could mean a lot.

“You have to have a gun to your head or your mother’s head” to be held, under current law, said Owen, executive director of the the Washington chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

These changes, she noted,, would mean a big change in the number of mentally ill people ending up with criminal records they don’t need. Instead, there’s a chance they’ll get the help they do need. The bills, House Bills 3076 and 2882,  are now before the Senate Human Services & Corrections Committee. The first hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

— Rita Hibbard

One thought on “Finally, new laws to treat the mentally ill before they hurt themselves or others passed by state House

  1. This is a much needed change in the law. I have seen so many who needed help and did not receive it for long difficult “waits!” Early help makes the possibility of “wellness’ much more possible.
    Families and persons caring for those seriously ill need to know soon after the illness presents itself just what they can do to help and how they can aide the person into the proper care. The wait is crushing on everyone, the ill and the persons living with them while making all the effort to sustain.