A task force calls for reform of California’s mental illness treatment laws

Atascadero State Hospital, shown above in this 1999 photo, cares for more than 600 mentally ill patients.
Atascadero State Hospital, shown above in this 1999 photo, cares for more than 600 mentally ill patients.
Reed Saxon/AP

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A new report issued Sunday indicates that California’s mental illness laws discriminate against people with the most severe illnesses by leaving them without access to treatments they need.

In California, a person with a severe mental illness is four times as likely to be in jail than in a hospital or outpatient clinic that offers proper psychiatric treatment — that’s the conclusion of a report called “Separate and Not Equal: The Case for Updating California’s Mental Health Treatment Law.”

"When a person with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are in the throes of their illness, horrible things can happen to them without treatment," says Carla Jacobs, a coordinator for the California Treatment Advocacy Coalition. The coalition is a nonprofit that lobbies for the mentally ill.

"They’re on [the] streets homeless, they’re in our jails and prisons," Jacobs continues. "And it’s had horrendous social consequences to the entire community."

The people who compiled this report over the course of 30 months included many citizens familiar with mental illness, such as doctors, judges, lawyers, psychologists, social workers and people who have actually had psychological disorders.

The report offers 14 recommendations for changes to the state’s 45-year-old Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, which governs involuntary, civil commitment to mental hospitals. California adopted the law back when a network of public psychiatric hospitals treated the mentally ill. Now, Jacobs says, that system has fallen apart.

"The primary recommendation of the task force is to develop a system that deals with the reality of the setting of mental health treatment right now."

The report also calls for every county to enact Laura's Law. The law would provide court-ordered outpatient treatment for people so ill, they don't recognize they need help.

"We are asking the legislature to stop waiting until the person is suicidal or dangerous and intervene before tragic outcomes occur," says Jacobs.

Nevada County is the only one in the state to fully embrace Laura’s law. Los Angeles County is operating pilot programs.