In light of the tragic events in Isla Vista on Friday night, it is clear that mental illness is an issue that concerns every one of us. We cannot reverse what happened, but we can take actions as individuals and a society to change the circumstances leading up to what transpired.
Mental illness is no one's fault. While effective treatments are available, many people living with a mental health disorder either have little insight or are in denial. Most families feel they've done everything in their power to get help but feel stymied at every turn by laws, the mental health system and stigma.
As a community, we need to engage in a dialogue regarding public policies designed to protect members of our community, including those who are living with the symptoms of mental illnesses. We also need to push back against the stigma that surrounds mental illness and prevents people from seeking the help they need and deserve. Finally, we need to take advantage of existing resources, assess what is and what is not available, and demand those that are lacking.
Public Policy Dialogue
On April 30, Elliot Rodger's parents were apparently so concerned about their son that they called law enforcement to request a welfare check. When police arrived at his apartment, Rodger was polite and coherent. He did not appear to pose an immediate threat of harm to himself or others, and therefore did not meet the criteria for an involuntary hold and psychiatric evaluation.
The officers responded appropriately, given their assessment of the situation. As reported by the Santa Barbara County sheriff, Rodger "flew under the radar" of law enforcement, something that happens all too often when someone is in a mental health crisis.
There are two pieces of legislation that have the potential to ward off the type of tragedy that ensued in Isla Vista on the night of May 23. The first is Assisted Outpatient Treatment, known in California as Laura's Law. Named for a 19-year-old mental health clinic volunteer, shot to death by a mental health patient who resisted treatment, Laura's Law allows intervention before an individual commits a crime that triggers an arrest.
There is understandable opposition to Laura's Law. Opponents note that forced treatment for people with mental illness has had a long and abusive history. Only psychiatry and psychology have been permitted to take away a person's freedom in order to "treat" that person. While Laura's Law has been successfully adopted in 45 states, its implementation in California requires the approval of individual county boards of supervisors. Santa Barbara County has yet to adopt Laura's Law.
The second is pending federal legislation, HR 3717, which would make a limited modification to HIPPA and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Protection Act) that protect the privacy rights of individuals regarding their medical information. HR 3717 would enable a health professional to share information with a designated family member or caregiver when the provider reasonably believes it would protect the health, safety or welfare of that person or others. HR 3717 also would enable a family member or caregiver to be a participant in a treatment plan. Opponents argue that the bill endangers the civil rights of people with psychiatric disabilities, as they would not get the same HIPPA protections every one else is entitled to.
The bottom line is that these issues are clearly complex. They warrant thoughtful public conversation so that we can together craft policies that protect all members of our community.
In addition to advocating for more proactive public policies, the other glaring issue that emerges from this recent tragedy is that of stigma. It is unfortunate that stigma and shame are so intractably entangled with mental illness. In addition to preventing people from seeking early diagnosis and treatment, stigma also contributes to a misleading public narrative that unfairly stereotypes all people living with the symptoms of mental health disorders.
Stigma is perpetuated by the pejorative names we use and is the direct result of misinformation. Mental health education holds the key to far better community responses to the issues surrounding the mental wellness of us all. Knowing how to help someone experiencing a mental health problem and knowing where to turn with concerns are the responsibility of each one of us, not just law enforcement officers, mental health treatment providers and the families and friends.
The most common barriers to mental health care are the systemic lack of coordination of information and drastically underfunded resources. Despite the frequency of mental illness in our country (26.8 percent of the population), there is still only one public psychiatric bed per 7,200 people, the same ratio as it was in the 1850s.
Furthermore, there must be an improved systematic community approach to responding to those in need of care. Law enforcement, mental health treatment providers, family members and the greater community all have a role to play in the care and support of those who need help. Early intervention, person-centered services and community education are the essential ingredients in preventing these tragedies.
The Mental Wellness Center is a private, nonprofit organization providing recovery, education and family services to adults and families affected by mental illness. For more information, please call 805.884.8440 or click here.
— Kelly Kapaun is a publicist representing the Mental Wellness Center.