Poorly tracked mental health services funds aren't reaching patients with severe psychological illness
By Amy Yannello
Note: This article has been corrected from an earlier version.
As she had done countless times before, Gloria Davidson sat and waited for her son to be brought into the courtroom. His hands and feet were shackled, and his blue uniform branded him as different — someone to be judged apart from the rest of the crowd in this room.
His crime? Aaron Davidson has schizophrenia.
On that day earlier this year, which Gloria recounted and shared with the Guardian in a recent interview, he faced charges for violating one of five restraining orders against him — but he didn't understand what he'd done to deserve them, his mother said.
"The neurons and synapses in his brain fire inappropriately and he sees and hears things that are not really there," Gloria explained. "As a result, his responses to his perceived reality are often unwarranted or make no sense," she continued, "or frighten the people around him." Aaron could neither speak coherently nor acknowledge that his actions had led to restraining orders, she said.
In his case, the judge deemed Aaron "incompetent to stand trial" and sent him to Napa State Hospital for treatment. He remains there, where he'll turn 36 later this month.
Davidson is one of three Bay Area mothers with adult sons at NSH to push for full, statewide implementation of Laura's Law.
Known formally as "assisted outpatient treatment" (AOT), the law is named for Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old college student who lost her life when Scott Harlan Thorpe, a man with a persistent and severe mental illness who had stopped taking his medication, shot and killed her and a coworker at a Nevada City mental health clinic.
While Thorpe, then 41, was in too deep of a state of psychosis to benefit from AOT at the time of the shootings, his family, psychiatrist, and the Wilcoxes all believed that if the legislation had been in effect even six months earlier, when Thorpe's family first noticed he'd stopped taking medication, the tragedy could have been averted.
DEBATE ON INVOLUNTARY TREATMENT
Through AOT, an individual's family, doctor, or trusted third party may advocate to a judge that a patient is at risk of decompensation — serious psychological deterioration making it impossible to function independently — if left untreated. In very narrow circumstances, a judge may order a person to receive AOT as a condition of being allowed to continue living independently.
Currently, only Nevada, Los Angeles and Yolo counties have embraced the law, which allows courts in very limited circumstances to compel into treatment those residents who are too ill to know they are ill.
This "lack of insight" — a neurological condition known as "anosognosia" — is said to affect upward of 40 percent of people with serious mental illnesses.
Gloria Davidson and Teresa Pasquini, another mother of a mentally ill NSH patient, are now pushing for Laura's Law implementation in Contra Costa County. They're joined by a third mother, Candy DeWitt, who founded a project called Voices of Mothers Project to bring together parents of people suffering from anosognosia. Alameda County’s Behavioral Health Care Services has issued a report recommending to its Board of Supervisors that it approve a one-year AOT pilot project. The issue is expected to be taken up at the BOS’ Oct. 28 meeting, where it would need a majority vote to be approved, DeWitt said.
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