Mary Haffner: A better way to help people with mental illness

The Ventura County Board of Supervisors has convened a work group to assess whether Laura’s Law will be implemented in our county. Laura’s Law, a program for those with serious mental illness, employs successful data-driven and evidence-based treatments. This law applies only to counties that have formally decided to adopt it. Ventura County needs to adopt Laura’s Law.

The California Legislature passed it, Assembly Bill 1421, in 2002. It allows court-ordered, intensive outpatient treatment for a small population of individuals who revolve in and out of jails, hospitals and homelessness. It has been shown to dramatically increase beneficial health outcomes for those with serious mental illness at a lower cost to counties by reducing the incarceration and hospitalization rates for these same people.

Los Angeles County has decided to fully implement Laura’s Law because it reduced incarcerations by 78 percent, hospitalizations by 86 percent, and hospitalizations after discharge from the program by 77 percent. Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich estimated it cut taxpayers’ costs by 40 percent. These results are consistent with results in all other states and counties that have implemented this program. California counties are among the last in the nation to make use of this treatment.

Current laws require that we wait to treat people with severe mental illness until after they deteriorate so significantly that they are a danger to themselves or others. Serious mental illness is a medical condition. In our society, people suffering other medical conditions receive stabilizing treatment even if they are too ill to consent to that treatment, but California’s mental health system discriminates against the mentally ill.

In what other area of health care do we insist that patients wait until they are gravely disabled before we treat them? Do we wait until an infection turns gangrenous before we treat? We can change this with Laura’s Law. With proper treatment through a program like this, many with severe mental illness can lead functional and productive lives.

Opponents of Laura’s Law state that it is too expensive and it violates the civil liberties of the mentally ill. These arguments are easily refuted. Laura’s Law has proved to save money everywhere it has been implemented. If we do not implement Laura’s Law, we will continue to pay staggering sums treating the mentally ill through law enforcement, involuntary hospitalizations, and the jail and prison systems. With Laura’s Law we can save money and help those who need it most.

Those who state that Laura’s Law infringes on civil liberties are not advocating for the patient, they are advocating for the disease. There is nothing “civil” about allowing a mentally ill person to remain lost in disease, psychotic on the street, homeless or incarcerated. And there is nothing “right” about allowing someone who is too mentally incapacitated to make a decision regarding treatment to fall headlong into a severe psychotic deterioration before taking action.

We should be working to eliminate the current involuntary treatment these people receive: the involuntary inpatient system — jails, prisons and temporary psychiatric hospital stays — and the involuntary outpatient system — police and law enforcement — and replace it so they have a chance at a functional life. Instead, we waste taxpayer money and wait until they have lost all of their rights.

And the way the mentally ill are treated in the current involuntary environments further deteriorates their mental state, making recovery that much more long and painful. What does it say about a society that does not care for those who are least able to care for themselves? No other patient group suffering with disease gets treated this way.

Societal costs, too, are higher when we fail to properly treat those with serious mental illness. Those with mental illness who are homeless occupy public parks and public libraries, or are detained in hospital emergency rooms waiting for beds in a psychiatric facility. Rather than recognize the need to “pay now or pay later,” our current way is to ignore the problem, allow the mentally ill to significantly deteriorate, and then spend exorbitant sums trying to treat them involuntarily through law enforcement and jails. It makes no sense.

 

With the data and working models we have, it is indefensible to continue this current system — a system that continues to result in vast human, financial and societal costs. Our county should reallocate mental health resources to better serve our severely mentally ill and save taxpayer money. We can start to do that through Laura’s Law.

Mary Haffner is a Ventura lawyer, school board member in the Ventura Unified School District and member of the Ventura Social Services Task Force.

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