Mental health advocates on opposite sides of the fence clashed Thursday over whether the severely mentally ill should be forced to receive treatment.
The occasion was a meeting of the Legislature's Joint Committee on Mental Health Reform, held at the California Science Center in Exposition Park.
The hearing was co-chaired by Assemblywoman Helen M. Thomson (D-Davis), who recently introduced legislation that would reform the state's 32-year-old mental health laws.
AB 1800 would allow authorities to hold people for 28 days, rather than the current 14, if it is determined that they might be dangerous to themselves or others.
It also would overturn parts of a law that bar doctors from forcing a seriously mentally ill person to comply with a treatment regimen, such as taking antipsychotic medications, unless the person has displayed clear violent or suicidal intent.
Before the hearing, about 60 mental health patients, advocates and family members rallied to support AB 1800, arguing that the choice for treatment cannot always be left to the patients.
Several told of mentally unstable family members who, because they were not considered a danger to themselves or others, were not compelled to take medication or follow a treatment regimen.
Randall Hagar told the panel his 21-year-old son, Chris, has been hospitalized, arrested and jailed numerous times because of his mental illness. Hagar said that each time the young man is released, he stops taking his medication.
"I'm an advocate, I'm knowledgeable, and I'm connected, and yet I cannot get my son treatment," said Hagar, who is a board member of the California chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
The legislators also heard form Carla Jacobs, who is a member of the Virginia-based Treatment and Advocacy Center, and Brian Jacobs, a member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. They told a harrowing story:
Carla Jacobs' grandmother and older brother both suffer from schizophrenia, as does Brian Jacobs' sister.
Ten years ago, Brian Jacobs said, his sister and her 10-year-old son were living on the street, and she was refusing treatment and all offers of help from relatives and friends. One day, she got into a taxi, traveled 75 miles and--delusional and hallucinating--killed her mother.
Jacobs said the family's pain and the cost to the state could have been minimized if his sister had been forced to have treatment.
"It is costing the state of California $1.5 million for her trial and incarceration," he said.
"Waiting for danger is too late," he said. "Human beings who suffer from serious mental illness and do not have the capacity to shop for treatment need care."
But many mental health advocates oppose forced treatment, arguing that successful recovery is based on voluntary participation. These advocates contend that the proposed legislation would unnecessarily increase forced treatment.
"What's most disturbing is that people are using the violence button to push this agenda," said Sally Zinman, executive director of the California Network of Mental Health Clients, a patient advocacy group.