In my last article, "People with Disabilities", I wrote about "Disabilities" as though there were only one class of "Disabilities" when, in fact, there are many in reality, and most people, like County Commissioners, tend to lump them all together. On the other hand, mental health professional care-givers tend to talk about and deal with only two groups, "people with mental illnesses" and "people with developmental disabilities". This article will deal primarily with "people with mental illnesses". Mental illnesses come in many varieties from schizophrenia, to bipolar disorder to major clinical depression, and to relatively minor disorders such as chronic fatigue syndrome and ADHD [ Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder].
One of the problems faced in Illinois and some other states is the "knee jerk" reaction following the recent Virginia Tech tragedy. Unfortunately in Illinois, that reaction took the form of the passage of a new commitment act which would make it easier to lock up people. In an article entitled Mental health bill seen as stigmatizing; activists vow fight by Elisabeth Kilpatrick appearing on Jul 25, 2007 in MEDILL REPORTS, a publication of the Medill School of Chicago, Northwestern University, Ms. Kilpatrick reports that "Illinois lawmakers overwhelmingly sent a measure to the Governor about two weeks ago that asks him to dilute the standards that must be met before a mentally ill person is involuntarily treated.
The Illinois General Assembly passed Senate bill 234 on July 13 and as of July 25 it was still sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting his action.
Under the current law, a person can be involuntarily treated for mental illness if he or she:
is reasonably expected to inflict serious physical harm on himself or herself, or on another person
if a person is unable to care for himself or herself without outside help
If the new bill is signed by the Governor, a person can be involuntarily treated for mental illness if he or she:
is reasonably expected to engage in dangerous conduct, defined as any threatening behavior that could harm another individual
is unable to understand his or her need for treatment and if left untreated will suffer mental or emotional deterioration
The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare in its paper The Virginia Tech Tragedy: Lost in Transition, Issue Brief - July 2007 points out that "there are several important ways states can address the mental health needs of students and other individuals:
Focus on Prevention.
- States should ensure that young adults have ready access to necessary services and are encouraged to take advantage of these services before a crisis occurs.
-Community-based mental health centers can train college and university staff, students, resident advisors, campus police and others who come into contact with students. Everyone should be familiar with the signs of mental illness and suicide risk, know how to access the full range of services in the community, and know how to respond in an emergency situation.
Be Prepared for Emergencies
-States should ensure that communities have a range of emergency and crisis services available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
-Community-based mental health centers can provide crisis lines, mobile crisis units to evaluate and stabilize a young person in crisis, and support to individuals who must be transported to emergency rooms when they are not safe to remain in the community.
Make Sure Everyone is Working Together
-States should ensure that the different systems an individuals can encounter are working together so that the young person is not "lost" between systems.
-Community-based mental health centers can attend commitment hearings, make contact with the patient and his or her family, share their expertise with the court, and know what the court expects from them. Community-based mental health centers can work with hospitals to ensure that a workable treatment plan is in place before the individual is discharged-and work with the individual and his or her family to smooth the transition f rom the hospital to community treatment.
A scarcity of resources and lack of communication, cooperation and coordination of treatment and services often results in individuals discharged from inpatient settings being placed on long waiting lists for community-based programs. States must ensure that mental health providers have sufficient resources to address the full range of community needs, from prevention programs to crisis services to long-term care.
In the end, the Virginia Tech tragedy is not about needing a new law or blaming one system or another. It’s about talking to one another. It’s about providing sufficient resources. It’s about working together to make our communities safer for those with mental illnesses and everyone around them.