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A failed mental health system, a mother’s plea, a tragedy

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Aug. 14, 2012 at 7:56 pm |
August 14, 2012 6:00 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Almost never have we devoted this space to a subject we covered just a day earlier.

But almost never have we run an op-ed like the one you’ll find on the opposite page, by Reno and Jennifer Sorensen. They are, respectively, the brother and mother of Laura K. Sorensen, the young woman accused of shooting three customers in a store near Wauna on Saturday.

They tell a story that ought to be mandatory reading for every lawmaker in Washington. Every lawmaker in the country, for that matter.

Our focus Tuesday was the folly of underfunding treatment for the severely mentally ill and imagining they’ll get by unsupervised, untreated or unhospitalized. Left to themselves, they inevitably wind up in some kind of trouble.

Many are preyed upon. Many wind up in jail after committing offenses they wouldn’t have committed had they gotten the care they needed.
Jail is no substitute for a functioning, accessible mental health care system – the kind of system that might help disturbed souls before they act on delusions, fear and anger. Jail is no place for someone whose fundamental problem is schizophrenia, paranoia or some other psychosis.

They don’t heal there. Many jails – including Pierce County’s – can’t afford and don’t have full-time psychiatrists. Jail staffs can’t require psychotic inmates to take medications. The atmosphere and sheer stress of incarceration work against recovery.

The Pierce County Jail staggers under the burden of handling the 100-plus severely ill inmates routinely housed there. They require high staffing levels.

Some are on suicide watch; some must be physically restrained; some attack guards and fellow inmates.

When they’re released to the streets, they often stop taking their medications and land right back in jail.

A year ago, Jennifer Sorensen – after futile attempts to get her daughter into treatment – wrote a prophetic plea to Gov. Chris Gregoire. Excerpts:

“The mental health care system in this state is absolutely broken. My daughter has a diagnosis of schizophrenia, paranoid type. She goes through life miserable and angry. She threatens strangers in public and destroys property. …

“My daughter is back in county jail for the second time this week. She is 19 years old. Jail is not the place for her! It will not help her! She will not get better there!

“If something doesn’t change, there will be a tragedy in her future. This is my prediction and it seems to mean nothing to anyone but me.”

Unmistakably disturbed and angry people must be connected with psychiatric care. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to figure that out.

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