OUR VIEW

Our View: A breakthrough in helping the mentally ill

July 12, 2014 

In the past, liberals have been the strongest opponents of insisting that people who are so sick that they don’t know they’re ill receive care. It infringes on their privacy and their right to choose their own care, liberals insist; it further stigmatizes those forced to accept care.

Such reluctance has sometimes led to tragedy for those who are ill and for those around them.

In a vote that should prompt other California policymakers to act, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has approved an ordinance insisting that people who suffer from severe mental illness receive care – rather than leave them to languish on the streets.

Supervisor Mark Farrell authored the ordinance creating an assisted outpatient treatment program. San Francisco supervisors voted 9-2 for it Tuesday. It will come up for a second and final vote Tuesday before being sent to Mayor Ed Lee for his expected signature.

San Francisco is the fourth county to fully embrace a 2002 state statute known as Laura’s Law, joining Nevada, Yolo and Orange counties. San Francisco is by far the most liberal, which is noteworthy.

The adoption of a Laura’s Law ordinance doesn’t mean individuals will be forced into locked psychiatric wards. Rather, judges could issue orders compelling people to receive care while living in their homes.

Individuals are expected to attend therapy and take antipsychotic medication if psychiatrists deem them to be necessary. Family, police and others could request that authorities evaluate individuals for inclusion in the program. To become subject to it, a person must have been hospitalized for mental illness, or jailed in recent years.

The 2002 law legislation that authorized counties to adopt such an ordinance was named for Laura Wilcox, a college sophomore who was working as a temporary receptionist at the Nevada County Behavioral Health Department when a mentally ill man shot and killed her.

Some misguided advocates for mentally ill people take the view that people should never be coerced to get care. But clearly, the use of voluntary treatment doesn’t work for some people. Farrell estimates that fewer than 1,000 of San Francisco’s 780,000 residents might become part of the program.

Other counties should take note of San Francisco’s action, as should California’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican, is pushing HR 3717, which would free federal funds for expanded care for the most severely mentally ill people, and relax federal privacy law that denies family members access to information about mentally ill loved ones. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield ought to make this issue a priority.

Republicans who have not joined Murphy are Reps. Jeff Denham of Turlock, Tom McClintock of Elk Grove (representing Tuolumne and Mariposa counties) and Doug LaMalfa of Richland. Democrats Doris Matsui of Sacramento and John Garamendi of Walnut Grove have not signed on, either.

Several congressional members were in the Legislature in 2002 and voted for Laura’s Law, including McClintock, Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno and Rep. Jackie Speier of Hillsborough. They should add their voices in support of Murphy’s bill.

Some people say care in the form of assisted outpatient treatment is the last resort. It’s not. The last resort is when mentally ill people commit suicide, become victims of violence, or commit crimes that land them in prison. In San Francisco, Farrell is not seeking to repeal anyone’s rights. To the contrary, he is insisting that people have a right to care.

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