Viewpoints: It's time to stop ignoring mental illness law

Published: Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 5E
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013 - 9:24 am

We are the families of Laura Wilcox and Scott Thorpe.

Laura Wilcox, our 19-year-old daughter, was killed in a rampage shooting while working at the Nevada County Behavioral Health Clinic on Jan. 10, 2001. She was a sophomore at Haverford College and filling in at the clinic while home on winter break.

Scott Thorpe, Kent's brother, shot and killed Laura and two other people that day. Perlie Mae Feldman was killed, and Judith Edzards was severely injured at the clinic. Daisy Switzer was severely injured when she jumped out a window to avoid being shot. After leaving the clinic, Scott went to a nearby restaurant where he shot and killed Michael Markle, the manager, and wounded the cook, Rick Senuty.

Kent and Sharon Thorpe had tried repeatedly to get more help for Scott before the incident.

When the rampage was over, many lives were forever changed, and we were left with the question, "Why?"

It became clear that Laura died due to failures in our mental health system. Scott's family had tried in vain to get his doctor to listen to the changes they observed in Scott, before the tragedy occurred. We are now well aware of the consequences of failing to adequately treat severe mental illness.

People express surprise when they learn that our families have joined forces. But it is simple: We want to prevent other families from experiencing a similar fate. Untreated severe mental illness played a major role in Laura's death.

Our state would be safer if people with severe mental illness could get treatment before they commit a crime.

Laura's Law, named for Laura Wilcox, authorizes court-ordered outpatient treatment – also called "assisted outpatient treatment" – for those who are too ill to seek mental health services on their own. It was enacted in 2002. Only Nevada County fully implemented the law.

The program in Nevada County has won state and national awards. The National Association of Counties recently bestowed its Achievement Award in Health on the county for innovation that "modernizes county government and increase(s) its services."

Because of Laura's Law, Nevada County is safer. Unfortunately, the rest of California has failed to embrace the law.

Every one of California's 58 counties can implement Laura's Law. The law requires each county board of supervisors to pass a resolution adopting the law. Nevada County has done so, and Los Angeles County has a small pilot program. Every other county has failed to do so and is failing those most in need as a result.

There is no good reason not to implement Laura's Law, and many good reasons for doing so. Some counties claim that there are no funds to implement the law and that funds from the Mental Health Services Act, or Proposition 63, cannot be used. Both those statements are false. Funds from the Mental Health Services Act can be used to implement Laura's Law, and Nevada County is using them.

Yes, we need more mental health services. But claiming there is no money to implement a law when Nevada County has saved nearly two dollars for every one dollar invested in Laura's Law is disingenuous. The message is clear: Laura's Law saves money.

Assisted outpatient treatment is being used throughout Nevada County to save lives and to reduce the costly consequences of untreated severe mental illness – arrest, incarceration, hospitalization and homelessness. Nevada County's use of Laura's Law has resulted in a 61 percent reduction in hospitalization days and a 97 percent reduction in incarceration days among participants.

As Californians, we are missing an opportunity to use a good law, save money and save lives. Until counties embrace Laura's Law, individuals like Scott Thorpe will remain caught in a revolving door due to the failures in treating mental illness. Sadly, family members of both the victims and of the mentally ill will continue to suffer.

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