Chris Van Es / NewsArt

Editorial: Mental illness must be confronted

Published: Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

As they confront a scourge of mass shootings, politicians should toughen gun restrictions. Parents ought to limit the time their kids play violent video games. But the fundamental issue that must be confronted is how this nation treats seriously mentally ill individuals.

Law enforcement officials have not yet ascribed a motive to Adam Lanza's rampage that left 20 children and six educators dead at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., plus his mother. Yet there is little doubt that mental illness played some kind of role, as it did among individuals who carried out mass shootings in Tucson, Ariz., at Virginia Tech, and in many other locales.

Lawmakers in California, in other states and in Washington, D.C., should focus on the issue in the coming year. The nation must show the compassion and the fortitude to intervene before seriously mentally ill individuals lash out.

Writing in the National Review, D.J. Jaffe, executive director of Mental Illness Policy Org., a New York nonprofit that focuses on mental illness, rightly called for the expansion of laws in New York and California by which authorities can order outpatient treatment for the most mentally ill individuals.

In California, Laura's Law, named for a young college woman who was shot and killed by a mentally ill man in Nevada City on Jan. 10, 2001, exists in a real way in only one county, Nevada County. Its use should be expanded – and funded – throughout the state.

Some civil libertarians and mental health practitioners have the misguided notion that individuals, who are too sick to know how ill they are, retain the right to refuse treatment, even if it means they may harm themselves or others.

"In our concern for the rights of people with mental illness, we have come to neglect the rights of ordinary Americans to be safe from the fear of being shot – at home and at schools, in movie theaters, houses of worship and shopping malls," psychiatrist Paul Steinberg wrote in the New York Times last week.

Professor Steven P. Segal of UC Berkeley's school of social welfare published a study last year showing that states with greater numbers of inpatient psychiatric beds had lower homicide rates. In other studies, Segal has shown that the longer patients stay in hospitals, the greater the chance those individuals will be able to function on the outside when they are released. Such findings ought to inform policymakers' decisions.

The first line of help always is the family, and families need a hand.

Parents and siblings of mentally ill individuals must contend with rigid privacy laws that deny them access to basic information about their loved ones once they turn 18.

In California, family members with the desire and ability to help must contend with a conservatorship law that makes it all but impossible to assert control over an adult who is severely mentally ill and resists care.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg is pressing the federal government to create a national program akin to Proposition 63, the 2004 initiative that he sponsored that provides $1 billion a year for mental health care.

Democrats and Republicans in the California congressional delegation ought to embrace that idea. Without a doubt, Proposition 63 money has helped care for people who otherwise would not have received it.

However, an incongruity remains. The $1 billion is spent on new programs. In some counties, Sacramento among them, officials have shut centers that provide crisis care because Proposition 63 funds cannot be spent for such programs.

Nor can Proposition 63 money be spent to fund mental health courts, in which judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys seek to help mentally ill offenders, instead of merely warehousing them in county jails for a few weeks or months. Steinberg should work to adjust the law so more money can be directed to such efforts.

The mental health care policy discussion should not be partisan.

Severe mental illness does not discriminate based on the political views or social standing of afflicted individuals and their families.

But as we've seen, the impact of untreated mental illness can affect any one of us.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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