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One Year After Patient Death, Santa Barbara County Mental Health Launches Pilot Program

A three-team approach following the conditions of Laura's Law is designed to help those with serious mental illnesses

One year has passed since a patient died in a Santa Barbara County psychiatric hospital, and mental health officials are hoping to avoid similar tragedies by reaching out to mentally ill people resistant to treatment.

In April 2010, Cliff Detty, 47, of Santa Maria, died after spending hours in a restraint that held his limbs and torso down inside the county’s Psychiatric Health Facility in Santa Barbara. He had struggled with paranoid schizophrenia for nearly a decade, and was homeless much of the time, or in jail.

His father, Rich Detty, repeatedly reached out to mental health officials for help but they told him they couldn’t intervene unless his son came in on his own. Under the law, patients must present a danger to themselves or others, or be deemed gravely disabled, to be taken in for emergency treatment involuntarily.

After Detty’s death, which has been ruled accidental by the county Coroner’s Office, discussion began about how to best help the mentally ill and their families get help. Talk also surfaced about Laura’s Law, a bill that requires outpatient treatment, by court order, for people who are unable — or won’t — access mental health services voluntarily.

Last Thursday night, Ann Detrick, director of the Department of Alcohol, Drug, and Mental Health Services, and Dr. Ole Behrendtsen discussed the particulars of a new pilot program. As the pair spoke in front of about 40 people at a monthly National Alliance on Mental Illness meeting, Behrendtsen reminded the audience that Laura’s Law had been adopted in only one of California’s 58 counties: Nevada County.

“It will not be adopted in Santa Barbara County,” he said, because of lack of funding.

The county’s three existing Assertive Community Treatment, or ACT, teams include drug counselors, case managers and a psychiatrist who reach out to the mentally ill wherever they are. Under the pilot program, the teams will take up to 15 new patients who qualify under the conditions of Laura’s Law. This means the person would have to have a serious mental illness, be in deteriorating condition and refusing to seek treatment on his or her own. People such as the person’s family, friends, social workers and anyone else can nominate the person for treatment, and if the individual qualifies, ACT members will approach that person for up to 90 days to try to convince them to seek treatment on their own.

“Then we’re going to give up and think about other things,” Behrendtsen said.

He was candid about the challenges that constant budget cuts, and the law, present to outreach workers.

Many parents watching the presentation had questions about how to get help for their mentally ill children. The frustration with the current system was palpable. One man asked about options available if his child isn’t chosen for the program but refuses treatment.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” Behrendtsen said.

As for the pilot program itself, “demand is huge,” he told the audience, adding that about 186 patients in the county could benefit from the program. He also said that a quarter of morbidity in the world is a result of psychiatric illness.

“It’s something that is overdue,” Detrick said of the pilot program.

Mental Health Commission member Ann Eldridge has spearheaded the effort to get a pilot program under way and spoke Thursday as well.

“This whole project started because of family members,” said Eldridge, adding that she thinks leaders at the county listened. She said she is hopeful the program will achieve results, even without the legal implications of Laura’s Law. And if the pilot goes well, the county may be able to do more in the future.

“If we can show good results, it will be easier to get the powers that be on board,” she said.

To find out more about the program or to get help for a mentally ill person, call the county’s Crisis and Recovery Emergency Services Department, or C.A.R.E.S, at 1.888.868.1649.

After the meeting, Behrendtsen told Noozhawk that court-mandated treatment is common in places such as Iowa, where he previously practiced before moving to California. He said he has seen patients respond well after they are required to begin treatment.

Asked about the pilot program, Rich Detty said he thought there were people whom his son might have listened to, but that a caring attitude will be the key to success for those on the ACT team.

“That’s something I’ve noticed many of the people employed in the mental health field don’t have,” he said. “They come across as being uninterested and not caring. ... Gaining the trust of someone like Clifford is the key to getting through to them and convincing them to take the medications.”

Detty didn’t trust the workers at the C.A.R.E.S. center, his father said. When he tried to get his son to seek help at C.A.R.E.S just five days before he died, Detty told him that “all they want to do at C.A.R.E.S. is stick a needle into you and inject poison that will kill you,” Rich Detty recalled. “It’s kind of ironic that he predicted what eventually would happen to him, even if it wasn’t C.A.R.E.S. that gave him those injections.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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