California Shooting Spree Sparks Calls for New Approach to Tackle Mental Health Issues

Students from the University of California- Santa Barbara and the University of California-Los Angeles attend a candlelight vigil May 26 in Los Angeles for the victims of a killing rampage. (Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)
Students from the University of California- Santa Barbara and the University of California-Los Angeles attend a candlelight vigil May 26 in Los Angeles for the victims of a killing rampage.
(Photo: David McNew, Getty Images)

Friday’s stabbing and shooting spree in Santa Barbara, Calif., has renewed the debate over how and whether to require people with serious mental illness to get psychiatric care.

Many families and advocates for people with serious mental illness say the country needs to change its standard for civil commitment, which allows people to be hospitalized against their will.

Changing these laws could help provide treatment for people like Elliot Rodger, 22, who police say stabbed or shot six people to death near the University of California-Santa Barbara, says Doris Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a mental health advocacy group. Although his family had asked police to check on him, officers decided he wasn’t a threat and made no arrest.

Fuller says states should make it easier for families to petition for involuntary commitment when they are worried about a loved one’s health.

“We cannot predict who will be violent, and we will never prevent all violence,” Fuller says. “But nobody knows better than family members when a loved one is unstable and dangerous.”

Most states allow people to be involuntarily hospitalized only if they present a danger to themselves or others, or if they are “gravely disabled,” Fuller says. That often leaves parents with one option: to call police, who aren’t trained to make psychiatric diagnoses, Fuller says.

“We use cops as mental health workers,” Fuller says. “That makes no sense.”

Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Pa., a child psychologist, has introduced legislation that would push states to change these criteria, permitting involuntary hospitalization based on a patient’s “need for treatment,” a standard now used by only 18 states.

“Once again, our mental health system has failed,” Murphy said in a statement after the shootings. “How many more people must lose their lives before we take action?”

Although families are the first ones blamed when something goes wrong, many feel shut out of their loved one’s care, says author Pete Earley, author of Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness.

Doctors often refuse to talk to the parents of adult patients because of privacy laws, even when family members are their primary care givers. With so few hospital beds for psychiatric patients, many simply can’t get care. Earley says he was repeatedly told that his son wasn’t sick enough to be hospitalized.

Once, an emergency room doctor told Earley, “Bring your son back after he tries to kill you or someone else.”

Studies show that most people with mental illness are no more violent than anyone else, says Ron Honberg, national director of policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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Source: USA Today | Liz Szabo

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