Laura's Law and Unintended Consequences

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Laura's Law would, if implemented, make it possible for a court to require someone with mental illness to engage in treatment, including a mandate that they take psychiatric medications. Considering that as of 2010 the Centers for Disease Control report suicide as the tenth leading cause of death, it sounds like a good idea.

But every good idea has its drawbacks. Here's one: When an 18-year-old woman who suffered from mental illness was shot by a sheriff's deputy in Half Moon Bay a rumor reportedly went through a key part of the community -- the mentally ill. The rumor? She was shot for not taking her medication.

Imagine yourself as someone with mental illness. You're in conflict with your family. Perhaps you think that people -- maybe your family, maybe the cops -- are out to get you. How easy is it to seek treatment now? Confidentiality laws create a firewall between law enforcement and mental health unless someone actually tells a therapist they plan to hurt someone. But a delusional person won't necessarily believe that.

Remember when there were proposals to round up people with AIDS? It was pointed out that if such a gross violation of civil rights took place, it would drive them into hiding. Well, the mentally ill have civil rights, too. And the threat of being forced into treatment is just as likely to drive them into hiding as well - until they're too ill to function. Great strides have been made in the last 30 years in reducing the stigma of HIV, but hardly any progress reducing the stigma of mental illness. Despite efforts of the National Alliance for Mental Illness and other organizations, the mentally ill continue to be stigmatized and marginalized.

Rather than trying to force people to accept treatment, we should work to have the same compassion for mental illness that we do for medical illness -- so people will want help. Don't force them.


With a Perspective, I'm James Matter.

James Matter is a licensed marriage and family therapist. He lives in San Francisco.