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Finally, a sane involuntary treatment policy

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 24, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
February 24, 2010 5:32 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Give Isaac Zamora credit for something: His killing spree in 2008 is helping persuade lawmakers that it shouldn’t be next-to-impossible to get an obviously dangerous and unbalanced man into psychiatric treatment.

Before Zamora exploded and shot six people to death in Skagit County, his family pleaded repeatedly for professional intervention. Red flags had been waving for years. He was delusional, suicidal, aggressive and threatening.

Yet he couldn’t be detained long enough for successful treatment because Washington’s Involuntary Treatment Act sets such a high bar for involuntary commitment or enforced therapy.

The current trigger for commitment requires that a mentally ill person pose an “imminent” danger to self or others, or else be “gravely disabled.” As interpreted by the courts, the “imminent” standard almost requires that someone be chasing people with a knife – not two weeks ago, but right now – before he or she can be forced into therapy.

House Bill 2882 would rewrite that ridiculous rule. It would replace “imminent likelihood” of harm with “substantial likelihood.” In practice, this would streamline involuntary commitment and therapy for someone who – in the judgment of a mental health professional – badly needs help but hasn’t pulled out the gun yet.

A bonus: The professional can consider pleas and warnings from family members and others who’ve been dealing with the patient in the real world, not just a clinic. The ITA does not provide for such input.

One point must always be stressed in a discussion like this: Mental illness and violence are not synonymous. The vast majority of the mentally ill are not violent. But some are, and a far greater number of them are unable to fend for themselves. HB 2882 would also make it easier to require antipsychotic medication and other treatment for people who can’t function without them but – precisely because of their illness – refuse such help.

The Legislature passed the Involuntary Treatment Act in 1972 in reaction to the excessive use and abuse of compelled treatment in previous years. The idea – good in theory – was to free the mentally ill. But too often, this has translated into the freedom to sleep under bridges, forage in dumpsters and live in terror of imaginary threats. And the victims of someone like Zamora can lose their lives, not just their freedom.

HB 2882 and a related measure, House Bill 3076, cleared the House of Representatives last week by unanimous votes. It’s now up to the Senate to finish the job and restore sanity to Washington’s involuntary treatment laws.

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