The recent high-profile search for and subsequent arrest of a man police say shot and killed his father in Newport highlights the shortcomings of the state’s mental health system. The man, family members say, suffered from bipolar disorder. There was little family members or local law enforcement officers could do to ensure that he was getting the treatment he needed.
The tragic outcome of this crack in the system is sadly familiar. The state’s move away from large, warehouselike mental hospitals, where the mentally ill were incarcerated as much as treated, was correct. But it created gaps, and these gaps must be filled. Law enforcement agencies and general medical hospitals have borne the brunt of managing people with mental illness who are not taking required medication or getting other treatment. Neither jail nor a hospital emergency department is the place to safely hold people who are mentally ill and are at risk of hurting themselves or others.
One tool that may help would be created by LD 1360, a bill carried over from the last legislative session. The bill, sponsored by Sen. John Nutting, D-Leeds, would allow law enforcement and family members to petition the District Court to initiate what is known as assisted outpatient treatment. That treatment order lasts for six months, and can be renewed for another six months.
The bill requires the Department of Health and Human Services to provide “community mental health services, including assignment of an assertive community treatment team,” for the person ordered by the court to get the treatment, according to the bill’s summary.
There would be sufficient hearings, appeals, examinations and reviews before the court would order a person to enter outpatient treatment. The treatment plan would be individualized, and would be overseen by DHHS staff.
Sen. Nutting explained that the law would create eight-member community teams of DHHS staff who would, on a rotating basis, serve as case managers for those ordered by the court to follow a treatment plan. That team member would meet with a patient and ensure he or she is taking needed medication, keeping appointments with a psychologist or social worker, and help with a job search and housing.
Yes, this will cost the state money. But so does mobilizing more than four dozen law enforcement officers and using helicopters and an airplane to search for a man. And the greatest cost, of course, is the loss of life. Forty-two states have similar laws, Sen. Nutting said, and they have seen patients returning to hospitals less frequently, thereby saving money. Sen. Nutting lists the recent murders of people perpetrated by their adult children suffering with mental illness. “How many more families have to go through this hell?” he asks.
The court-ordered monitoring of a person suffering with mental illness will not guarantee that he or she continues taking medication. And some will claim that patients are losing the right not to take medication. But LD 1360 would provide some degree of oversight to a population that is too often left adrift in our communities resulting in the ultimate tragedy.