One parent told of her mentally ill son who has been homeless, drug-addicted, jailed and released numerous times over the past 15 years. When he unsuccessfully attempted suicide, he flailed at police who came to help him.
Another mother recounted the anguish that schizophrenia had visited on her grown son -- five times hospitalized for treatment, five times released onto the streets. He landed in Napa State Hospital after envisioning dismembered bodies in his rented room.
Another woman shared a photo of her smiling son at age 7 or 8 before explaining that, as an adult, he's been in and out of locked facilities for 14 years, his condition improving only long enough to be released and fall prey to his impairment again.
"It's called the 'revolving door,'" said Peter Mantas, past Contra Costa County Mental Health Commissioner. "People cycle through psych emergency rooms, get stabilized, medication and therapy. Then as soon as they're stable, they're sent out into the world with instructions to see their doctors. Because they don't really understand they have a problem, they decompensate, get in trouble, and their cycle starts over again."
The outpouring of personal experiences came last week during a Family and Human Services Committee presentation to Supervisors Candace Andersen and Federal Glover in support of Laura's Law, a state statute that allows for court-ordered assistant outpatient treatment for persons with serious mental illness.
The bill, enacted in 2003, is named for Laura Wilcox, a mental health worker who was killed by a patient in 2001. Its implementation has lagged because that's been left up to individual counties. Only Nevada County, where Wilcox worked, has implemented it.
Mantas, who has a painful familiarity with mental illness -- his 16-year-old son, Andrew, killed Mantas' wife, Dimitra, during a psychotic breakdown in 2006 -- said concerns over funding and civil liberties have overshadowed its value in averting tragedies such as those in Newtown, Conn., and at the Washington Navy Yard. The law, nearly identical to Kendra's Law in New York, is aimed at identifying individuals who have needed repeated treatment for serious mental illness and failed to comply with prescribed therapy.
"A therapy team meets with the individual and hopefully gets him to agree to a plan," Mantas said. Failing that, a judge can order assisted outpatient treatment and monitored compliance.
Kendra's Law, enacted in 1999, has had encouraging results, according to a 2005 study by New York's Office of Mental Health. As reported in the New York Daily News, 87 percent of patients were less likely to be jailed during the six months after a court order; 77 percent less likely to be hospitalized; 74 percent less likely to be homeless.
There are indications, too, that implementation pays for itself in reduced costs for incarceration, emergency treatment and hospitalization. Concord police Lt. Robin Heineman provided anecdotal support.
"We often find the homeless also suffer from mental illness and substance abuse," she said. "I know of one individual who, if we count calls for service, cleanups, ambulances, fire department and medical, has cost our city and other agencies $1.3 million in a three-year period."
There's one more cost to weigh: lives put at risk by failing to adequately treat the mentally ill. That, remember, is how this bill came to be called Laura's Law.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.