Mental health: A husband goes missing: Could 'Laura's Law' have helped?

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In  late May, while driving to a sober treatment facility in Oregon, Samantha Lamberg's husband, Erik, went off the medication he was taking for his bipolar disorder.

A few days into his trip, his broken-down van was discovered along a remote road in Mendocino County.  Erik has yet to surface, despite a large-scale search.

The story is depressingly familiar to Carla Jacobs, a board member with the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center.

"[With] any other illness, we would intervene when the person didn't have the capacity to make their own medical decision," she says. "But with mental illness, we say instead that until you are dangerous to [yourself], dangerous to others, we're not going to help you. We're going to wait until the blood flows."

Jacobs says Laura's Law  — which allows for court-ordered outpatient treatment for those mentally ill people who are unable to realize that they are sick — may have helped the Lamberg family.

Legislation that will make it easier for California counties to compel some people to get mental health treatment is now on Gov. Brown's desk.

Senate Bill 585 clarifies how counties can pay for "Laura's Law," which may help persuade more counties to adopt it. So far, only one rural county has fully implemented it. Meanwhile, a family that might have benefited from the law wonders about the fate of a loved one missing since May. 

RELATEDLaura's Law saves money, lives, should be implemented in other California counties

In the early days of her marriage, Samantha Lamberg of Hermosa Beach embraced the larger-than-life persona of her husband, Erik. For her, it provided entrée into a world that her shyness had always kept at bay.

"He was far more extroverted than I was," she says. "And so I was just delighted to have someone who was fun to go out with and very gregarious."

But as the years passed, Samantha started to wonder if Erik's increasingly extreme behavior reflected something more than just a big personality. In 2000, she says, a psychiatrist confirmed it: Erik suffered from  bipolar disorder,  a mental illness defined by episodes of mania alternating with periods of depression.

Like many sufferers, Erik often chose to self-medicate with alcohol and street drugs, rather than with the prescription mood stabilizers that can cause a slew of unwelcome side effects.

"I knew from talking to doctors that the combination of bipolar and addiction were going to be really, really hard to overcome for him," Samantha says.  "What was remarkable about him was he kept trying, and he kept trying and he kept trying."

And so did she. For years, the Yale graduate and lawyer worked with her husband to find a solution. Erik had multiple stays in private treatment and there were marital separations. But when Erik went off his meds, there was little Samantha — or anyone else — could do.

Named after Laura Wilcox

The state law, passed in 2002, was named after Laura Wilcox — 19-year-old volunteer at a Nevada County mental health clinic who was shot to death by a mentally ill man who refused medical treatment.  

Modeled after "Kendra's Law" in New York, Laura's Law  allows for court-ordered, community-based outpatient treatment for those mentally ill who are unable to realize that they are sick and, as a result, repeatedly land in the hospital or in jail.

It also allows a judge to order treatment for those who may cause serious harm to themselves or to others. Jacobs calls it "therapeutic jurisprudence."

So far, in California, only Nevada County in Gold Rush Country has fully implemented Laura's law, which last year a grand jury there found saves saves money and lives

More recently, a larger study by Duke University found Kendra's Law showed similar benefits. And that's helping generate renewed interest in Laura's Law, which requires a county's board of supervisors formally to opt into the law.

This summer, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted to adopt Laura’s Law.  

In Los Angeles County, Supervisors have instructed the Department of Mental Health to provide them with information about implementing the law in Los Angeles County.

And in Orange County, mental health officials say supervisors who were hesitant to implement Laura’s Law because of uncertainty over how to pay for it are now likely to reconsider it, thanks to SB 585, the measure now on the governor's desk, which clarifies the funding issue.

"I think it's a great tool for us to have," says Mary Hale, behavioral health director for Orange County. 

Meanwhile, Samantha Lamberg and her family continue to wait and hope for Erik's safe return.

"The odds that he's alive are less than the odds that he's not," Lamberg says through tears. "The idea of living with no closure is really scary."

Lamberg says she hopes her story, no matter how it ends, will highlight the need for laws that will assist families in helping their mentally ill loved ones. 

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