SACRAMENTO, Calif. — There is a renewed effort to modernize California’s behavioral health laws, as lawmakers and mental health advocates continue to fight for the many people who continue to die on the streets after not receiving adequate care.
State Senator Susan Talamantes Eggman knows all too well the struggles it takes to get people suffering from serious mental illness the help they deserve, having lost an aunt and childhood best friend to mental health issues.
“They both ended up dying basically with their rights, they died with their rights fully intact, but they died anyway, not being able to take care of themselves,” Eggman said.
Eggman, a former social worker, says her aunt and her friend did not meet the criteria for receiving involuntary treatment under the Lanterman-Petris Short Act (LPS), which has not been updated since 1967.
“At that time, we were storing a lot of people in large institutions and not treating them the way they should be treated. And we didn’t have the treatments, we didn’t have the medications that we have now,” explained Eggman. “And then in 1967 we said that, you know, we’re not going to keep people for long periods of time and just store them, that people should be able to be treated in the community and make sure the public stays safe. ”
Under the LPS, the current criteria for being considered severely disabled is if a person cannot meet basic personal needs for food, clothing or shelter or cause harm to himself or others.
Eggman believes that the current criteria are not helping the people who most need treatment. To bring about change, the senator created Senate Bill 43 to reform the LPS Act, expanding the definition of ‘severely disabled’ to lower the barrier to entry for guardianship and forced treatment.
“I think for everything, there is a season and I think this is the time to change the LPS. We have the opportunity. the state was [sic] very purposeful – this administration – in addressing the chronically mentally ill who are often also homeless. So I think people understand that this needs to happen,” Eggman said.
SB 43 would expand the definition of ‘severely disabled’ to include persons suffering from a mental health disorder or a substance use disorder who are at substantial risk of serious harm.
Severe harm would be situations where individuals failed to attend to personal or medical care or failed to attend to self-protection or personal safety. The bill would also stipulate that people who are unable to provide adequate shelter or clothing could enter a guardianship and be subjected to forced treatment.
Updating California’s behavioral health laws is what someone like Lee Davis has been fighting for. The Oakland resident overcame a bipolar disorder that brought her grief through two psychotic episodes.
“Some of my experiences are downright humiliating and downright embarrassing to talk about,” notes Davis. “I thought I could fly, I almost thought about jumping off a building. I did a lot of things that, by sheer luck, didn’t hurt me or someone else.
Davis credits the involuntary treatment with saving her life and allowing her to recover.
“I felt like I had it all figured out. And it took involuntary treatment for me to get what I needed to stabilize. And to be able to actively make decisions for myself and my recovery, I just wouldn’t have had the opportunity,” Lee said.
SB 43 received strong bipartisan support in the state legislature, both Progressive Democrats and Conservative Republicans signed on as co-authors and spoke out on the need for change in California’s behavioral health system.
“When you have James Gallagher and Scott Weiner saying the same thing, you know, you’ve come up with something we can all agree on,” Eggman said.
Opposition to SB 43 has come from civil liberties and disability rights organizations who argue that forced treatment violates people’s basic rights.
“SB 43 will not expand access to care, it will not divert people with mental illness from our criminal justice system – it will only perpetuate the revolving door of homelessness and institutionalization – involuntary criteria need not be expanded,” said Samuel Jain, senior policy attorney for disability rights in California.
Though Davis sees the current system as a failure of people’s basic rights.
“Involuntary treatment, I know many people consider it coercive or take away personal freedoms, but I don’t feel that I was free in a psychotic state. It was very much my brain that was hijacked.” She said.
SB 43 recently passed the Senate Appropriations Committee and now faces a vote before going to the Assembly.
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