Find balance between treating mental illness, protecting rights

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dottie Pacharis ~  

We have yet another shooting by an individual suffering from mental illness. When will we recognize the need to treat individuals who have severe mental illness before a crisis strikes? Myron May shot three people at Florida State University; one student was critically injured and remains paralyzed from the waist down. Had it not been for the prompt response by the police, the tragedy could have been far worse.

After every tragedy involving mental illness — the Washington Navy Yard; the elementary school in Newtown, Conn.; the Aurora, Colo., movie theater; the shopping center in Tucson; the Virginia Tech massacre — there is the standard public outcry to do something to prevent these senseless events.

With every instance of mass violence that we have seen repeatedly over the past few years, the country's failed mental-health system quickly draws national attention. There is much debate in the news media to fix the problem; yet Congress and the White House take no meaningful action in response. Although the failures of our mental-health system occur throughout the country every day, only those involving mass shootings make the national news.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, nearly 23 million Americans live with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or major depression. Among them, only a small fraction ever become violent, and then, usually it's when they fail to get treatment. Catching the problem early is crucial. Yet parents seeking help are often turned away, or lose control when their children turn 18.

State laws vary, but all states set strict controls regarding forced treatment, limiting it to circumstances when a person is a danger to himself or others, or likely to become so. Some serious mental illnesses make it difficult for those affected to assess their need for treatment. When patient rights exceed necessary protections, individuals with severe, untreated mental illnesses can die because we've protected their civil liberties to remain mentally ill and refuse treatment.

Many do die. And sometimes they harm others along the way. The general public also has rights — the right to be protected from the consequences of nontreatment by individuals who are either off their medications or not being treated at all.

I'm the mother of a son who suffered from severe and persistent bipolar disorder. Despite the extraordinary and loving efforts of his family, my son's illness destroyed him; his downward course was aided by an ineffective legal system that continually protected his civil right to remain mentally ill.

My son was not medication compliant. I don't know why he would stop taking his meds — he just did. I'm not even sure he knew why. He, at times, lacked insight and used poor judgment. When this happened, the map for his recovery was full of dead-ends, and both he and his family suffered the consequences. His third attempt at suicide was successful.

Congressman Tim Murphy, R-Pa., has introduced the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act, H.R. 3717, which addresses the obstacles families face when trying to save loved ones from untreated serious mental illness. The bill would expand access to treatment for individuals who miss out on mental-health services because they are too ill to seek treatment.

Opponents of the bill think H.R. 3717 would strip mentally ill people of their civil liberties by allowing family members to force them to get treatment whether or not they want it or think they need it. This is false. The bill does not violate civil liberties of people with mental illness.

We do not tell Stage 3 cancer patients to return for treatment when they reach Stage 4. Yet we require severe mentally ill individuals to reach the crisis stage before we treat them. That is wrong. Mental illness should be treated with the same importance — the same dignity — as all other medical illnesses.

Mental illness is not going away. We must find a balance between protecting the rights of mentally ill people and also getting them the treatment they require to recover and not be a threat to innocent people who have the misfortune to get in their way. 

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dottieDottie Pacharis is the author of "Mind on the Run — A Bipolar Chronicle." She divides her time between Fort Myers Beach, Florida, and West River, Maryland. Since her son’s battle with bipolar disorder, she has become an advocate for appropriate care for the mentally ill, especially family involvement in decisions about treatment. Dottie is the author of Mind on the Run – A Bipolar Chronicle, the story of a suicide that proper treatment would have prevented. She has been a featured speaker at various mental health organizations and has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times, Guardian UK, News-Press, Ground Report, and the Orlando Sentinel. 

This article was originally posted as an editorial in the Orlando Sentinel. 

Comments

  1. George Patrin, MD/MHA, San Antonio, TX's avatar
    George Patrin, MD/MHA, San Antonio, TX
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    Dottie, we are soul-mates. The key is family involvement, and not forcing any one treatment, especially psychotropics, on the unfortunate loved one, but offering a choice of treatments and allowing time for them to work. Better yet, involve families when the earliest signs of mental illness are surfacing and prevent the severest forms of the disease. We are currently fighting this battle for a relative of ours, so far, unsuccessfully. I am sorry for your loss and appreciate your passion for preventing the next tragedy.
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