Resolve steeped in outrage and grief was palpable across the country in the days following the gut-wrenching murders of 20 first-graders and six of their adult educators two weeks ago in Connecticut. Almost universally, Americans seemed to have reached the conclusion that enough is finally enough.
The gun lobby felt the brunt of the initial outrage, and not without grounds. But as raw emotion has given way to reflection, we've started studying other likely factors in the de-evolution of this violent society we've created. And one avenue of introspective study keeps leading back to mental illness.
It's a multifaceted issue, with no single, easy solution. But solutions are out there -- real solutions with proven track records. The Northern California community of Nevada City has developed one such solution, and it merits consideration: Assisted Outpatient Treatment, or Laura's Law.
The law is named for Laura Wilcox, a 19-year old college sophomore who was working at Nevada County's public mental health clinic during her winter break. On Jan. 10, 2001, she and two others were shot to death by Scott Harlan Thorpe, 41, who had resisted his family's attempts to force him into psychiatric treatment. He, like many people with serious mental illness, lacked sufficient insight into his own illness to seek help -- a condition known as anosognosia.
Laura's Law, modeled after a New York law known as Kendra's Law, allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment, including the administering of antipsychotics. The law makes it easier for families, often the people in the best position to identify and catalogue evidence of mental illness, to compel their loved ones to obtain treatment.
Laura's Law can go into effect only in the California counties that have specifically authorized it by a vote of their county supervisors, and provided no existing mental health program is scaled back or cut in order to fund implementation of the law. Few counties have done so: Other than Nevada County, only Los Angeles County has voted it in, and just on a limited basis there. A few others, Kern County included, have discussed it.
The evidence suggests that assisted outpatient treatment laws are worthwhile investments. A 2005 study of the New York law found that, among people who had been in the treatment program, there was 74 percent reduction in homelessness, a 77 percent reduction in psychiatric hospitalization; 83 percent fewer had been arrested, and 87 percent fewer had been incarcerated. Assaults on others, threats of assault and suicidal thoughts were all markedly down in those studied.
In 2009, researchers with the New York State Psychiatric Institute and Columbia University interviewed 76 people who had received assisted outpatient treatment. Some 62 percent told the interviewers that their court-ordered treatment had helped them; 38 percent said the treatment had helped them get control over their lives; and 90 percent of said they were more likely to keep appointments and take their medications.
Laura's Law is not a be-all, end-all solution for the societal problems created by mental illness, but it's a tool that counties and states can use to address an issue that has clearly gotten away from them -- from us all. Its effectiveness might be limited, but it also promises cost savings to counties when other factors, such as incarceration, are factored. And it keeps the conversation about mental illness in America going. The issue is much deeper than anything one law can address.
The Kern County Board of Supervisors would serve us well to consider the possible implementation of Laura's Law. Doing so now, rather than after tragedy compels them, would be the preferred course. Addressing mental illness represents only part of the promise we must make to the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School and all of the other victims of U.S. gun violence. But it's a good place to start.