Goodrich case shows need for mental health reform

Posted Nov. 03, 2009, at 8:54 p.m.

What does it take to get appropriate treatment for someone’s mental illness in Maine? For the Goodrich family of Newport, it apparently costs a dead father, a beaten mother, more than 55 officers, some helicopters, a plane or two and an alert waitress who recognized Perley Goodrich Jr. as the man officials were searching the state for in connection with his father’s murder. Perley Goodrich needed help, help that will now come far later and at a far higher cost than it needed to be.

Maine’s outdated civil commitment laws prevent individuals with severe mental illnesses from getting the treatment they need — and may not be aware they need — until they pose a likelihood of serious harm to themselves or others. And even then, the only option is one of the state’s scarce remaining psychiatric hospital beds. More likely, individuals with severe and persistent mental illness, like Goodrich, go without adequate treatment or end up in jail or prison after a tragedy occurs.

Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, a longtime advocate for individuals suffering from severe mental illnesses, has helped to improve services and the law in Maine. Despite his efforts, Maine remains one of only seven states in the country that do not allow for assisted outpatient treatment.

Assisted outpatient treatment laws exist in 43 states. Assisted outpatient treatment is court-ordered treatment for individuals with severe mental illnesses as a condition of remaining in the community. Studies and data from states using assisted outpatient treatment prove that it is effective in reducing the incidents and duration of hospitalization, homelessness, arrests and incarcerations, victimization and violent episodes.

The need for reform is clear. Jails and homeless shelters are warehouses for individuals’ suffering from mental illness. Preventable tragedies continue to occur in Maine, committed by individuals with untreated mental illness. Individuals suffering from mental illness are hospitalized repeatedly, arrested for petty crimes or serious crimes, living on the streets — all of which might be avoided if the law provided an avenue to treat people before a crisis occurs. Instead, in Maine, families are forced to stand by and wait until their loved ones deteriorate and hit rock bottom.

Assisted outpatient treatment has been shown to reduce recidivism, reduce arrests and other contacts with the criminal justice system, reduce rehospitalization and reduce the use of emergency psychiatric services, the most expensive form of mental health treatment.

In hard financial times, opponents of improved treatment laws cite fiscal restraints as a reason not to take the strides necessary to restore reason to treating mental illness. This is a poor argument.

Maine keeps spending millions, yet individuals who need treatment don’t get it until they commit a crime. Taxpayer funds are used to keep the sickest individuals in jail instead of giving them the treatment they need to avoid being arrested in the first place. In times of serious budget constraints, everyone needs to look for means to make more effective use of limited resources. Assisted outpatient treatment would provide Maine with another tool to make existing limited resources more effective.

Would assisted outpatient treatment prevent all tragedies? Nothing will prevent them all. But providing effective, sustained treatment to individuals suffering from severe mental illnesses could mean more productive lives for those individuals, possibly saving their lives and others, saving families untold grief and saving taxpayers money.

Maine simply cannot afford to wait to improve its mental health treatment laws. Nor does it have to wait. LD 1360 is a bill that would bring assisted outpatient treatment to the state. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Nutting, could save dollars and lives. Let’s hope that when the Legislature reconvenes in a few weeks that Maine’s elected officials take the necessary steps to pass this lifesaving measure.

James Pavle is the executive director for the Treatment Advocacy Center, www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org. Kristina Ragosta is the Treatment Advocacy Center advocate for Maine.

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