Mental health issues continue to plague the court system and are at the heart of many high-profile violence cases. Laura’s Law is just one of hundreds of state bills trying to tackle the problem of mental health. The law seeks to give courts the resources they need to involuntarily commit people to get the treatment they require if they refuse care and are severely mentally disabled.
Mental health advocates have long been lobbying for more tools to help those who can’t or refuse to help themselves. Many mental disorders can be handled with treatment, but the hurdle for many families with loved ones with severe disorders is that the family has no control over the individual or right to force them into hospitals against their will to get the help they need. That has led to violence perpetrated nationwide.
Hearing about another mass shooting — and finding out that everyone in the perpetrator’s life knew there was a problem but had no way to help — is pushing families and mental health advocates to lobby for legislation to change how mental health is currently looked at.
Currently, 18 counties in California have adopted Laura’s Law, and many more are debating whether the bill is a good idea or not. Laura’s Law was enacted in California to give courts, the right to order those who appear before them to be remanded for assisted outpatient treatment.
The law was named for mental health worker Laura Wilcox, who was killed by a man who refused treatment for his psychiatric disorder. Although some believe that the law has the potential to strip someone of their civil liberties, there are very strict guidelines that must be followed to apply Laura’s Law, and it might help save people from themselves and keep others safe in the community.
Scott Harlan Thorpe, a severely disturbed man, took Wilcox’s life in 2001. At a Nevada County public health clinic, he not only refused to receive treatment and hospitalization, but he also became overly paranoid and delusional.
The law stipulates that a court may order assisted outpatient treatment if a person has a serious mental condition or disorder and also has a history of psychiatric hospitalization, threats or attempted violent acts against themselves or other people, or they have been convicted of crimes due to their mental illness and the lack of treatment for it.
Opponents of the bill maintain that you can’t force someone to take medication against their will. There are instances when people don’t want to take the drugs due to severe side effects, and forcing them to take the drugs can lead to a host of problems like tardive dyskinesia, diabetes, sexual side effects, an increased risk of suicide and other adverse effects.
The problem is that the courts don’t have a crystal ball to indicate who may be a danger to themselves or the public — or do they? If someone has a history of violence and is threatening to either hurt themselves or someone else, that is usually a red flag that they will follow through on those threats. Statistics show that many mentally ill patients who either don’t get or refuse the care they need, end up either homeless or committing violent acts.
In the past, violence has been tackled after the fact with prison and other types of punishment. But mental illness is just that — an illness. Therefore, it would make more sense to tackle it in a preventative way and stop things like Laura Wilcox’s death when possible, instead of waiting until after the fact to punish someone for acts they aren’t even capable of stopping themselves from perpetrating.
Mental health is a major problem both in public health and public safety circles. If you force someone to take medication against their will, it can lead to a slippery slope. If you don’t, however, it can lead to disaster. At some point, you have to ask whether it is more important to protect an individual’s rights or to protect them from themselves and the public at large. But if Laura’s Law and many others like it are passed, then they could have an enormous effect on the ability that courts have to take away someone’s civil rights. But it also might save countless lives in the future.