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Another mental health breakdown, another family tragedy

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Oct. 29, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
October 29, 2012 4:11 pm

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Doctors released Jonathan Meline from Western State Hospital in January, deeming him “no longer an imminent threat to himself or the community.”

But now we know that he was a threat to his father, a respected teacher in the Bethel School District. On Thursday, prosecutors say, the 29-year-old brutally killed Robert Meline in his Tacoma home. The son told investigators he had been planning the murder for months.

It’s easy to second-guess the decision to release Meline now that he’s shown himself to indeed be a threat – if not exactly an “imminent” one. But Meline does appear to have shown plenty of warning signs before he was criminally committed to WSH from October 2010 to May 2011 and civilly committed from August 2011 to Jan. 12 of this year.

A bizarre incident at a car dealership is what landed Meline at WSH in 2010. Authorities say he tried to run over a salesman, and police had to use a Taser to arrest him.

Doubtless we’ll learn more about Meline – who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia – and why doctors decided he was stable enough to leave WSH. Meanwhile, this will be added to a sad litany of stories about families coping with a loved one’s severe mental illness and a system that all too often is unable to prevent tragedy.

Another recent case was the Aug. 11 shooting by a disturbed young woman in a store near Wauna. Three people were hit; one of them – customer David Long, 40 – died of his injuries Oct. 13. The family of Laura Sorensen had been desperately trying to get help for her, to no avail. Now a man is dead, and Sorensen faces charges, including first-degree murder.

In both of these cases, people with mental illnesses who needed treatment will now get it – but only after innocent victims died. Too many others with mental health issues are on the street or in jail, where treatment is negligible and conditions may even worsen their conditions.

Most candidates have failed to address this important issue in this election, but it’s one that touches so many families and causes so much pain. Funding cuts have severely affected service delivery, and laws make it hard to force treatment on unwilling people until they do something that shows they pose a threat to themselves or others. When they are committed and get treatment, they often are released if they show improvement with medication. But lack of oversight in the community can lead to them going off their medication.

Whether that’s the scenario in the Meline case is unclear. But it’s yet another indication that gaps in mental health treatment can have tragic consequences for families and communities. When state legislators return to Olympia in January, they should consider legislation that would make it easier for families to get help for disturbed relatives.

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