Our View

Dealing with the worst-case scenario

By From page A12 | June 15, 2014

The issue: Laura’s Law provides a way to avoid tragedy

The warning signs were there in Isla Vista, where Elliot Rodger posted a rambling video “manifesto” online before killing his roommates and three other UC Santa Barbara students.

They were there in Seattle, where Aaron Ybarra stopped taking his medication because he wanted to “feel the hate,” before he shot up the campus of Seattle Pacific.

And they were here in Davis, where Aquelin Talamantes’ behavior prompted a welfare check that ultimately didn’t keep her from drowning her own daughter.

WHEN IT COMES to mental health, our society and our legal system err on the side of looking the other way. It takes extraordinary, and often specific, threatening behavior for law enforcement to request or be granted an involuntary psychiatric hold (a “5150” in California legal parlance). Without the person exhibiting “a threat to one’s self or others,” disturbing and even bizarre behavior gets a pass, with nothing stronger than an admonition to seek help.

“Laura’s Law,” passed by the California Legislature in 2003, seeks to change that. It allows courts to order involuntary outpatient treatment for those with a serious mental illness, a recent history of hospitalization or violent behavior. Maybe more importantly, it allows family members or roommates — people unqualified to make a 5150 referral — to ask the county health department for help.

“Oftentimes,” said Yolo County Mental Health Director Karen Larsen, “families are just desperate for something, some kind of help to prevent some of these really horrible outcomes that we’ve seen not only locally but also across the state and the nation lately.”

The law requires counties to fund a treatment program in order to take advantage of its provisions, and on Tuesday, Yolo County supervisors voted to become the third county in the state to implement the law completely, taking a significant step forward in our ability to head off catastrophic events before they happen.

MENTAL HEALTH advocates don’t all support this law. Some argue against what they see as enforced medication and violations of the patients’ civil rights. They contend that the mentally ill are, on average, no more violent than the general population.

But we’re not talking about the average. These are extraordinary cases, maybe a few dozen a year, where a patient’s refusal to get treatment puts himself or herself, and the community at large, at risk. Laura’s Law gives us an opportunity to avoid a senseless tragedy.

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