Monday, August 8, 2011

New mental health treatment worth fighting for

An opinion piece published in yesterday's edition of the Daily Record:
By Valerie Fox

I had planned to write about involuntary outpatient commitment (IOC) once it was finally up and running in New Jersey, but the editorial in the July 28 Daily Record (“Treatment funding is a good investment”) has prompted me to write at this time.

When Governor Corzine signed IOC into law, I was invited to the bill signing. Cathy Katsnelson [pictured], a Burlington County woman who lobbied for the new law, introduced herself to me. I felt honored. We both expressed our joy that, after many years, IOC was finally law. Over the years at legislative hearings in Trenton, I would hear Ms. Katsnelson testify as a mother who lost her son because of untreated mental illness. I am very pleased the IOC law is called “Gregory’s Law.”

I am not a family member. I am a person who has lived with schizophrenia since first being diagnosed in 1963. I have been fortunate that I can function pretty well, as long as I take my medication and take care of myself both physically and mentally.

Over the years, I only had one very severe setback, which changed the course of my life forever. I stopped taking my psychiatric medication for what I thought was a good reason — against the advice of my psychiatrist. I tumbled into homelessness and untreated schizophrenia for a two-year period.

A healthy, normal person cannot imagine living homeless in a schizophrenic state. It is not pretty. It is very dangerous to oneself and possibly others. Voices were my guide during this period. As a result, some decisions I made were risky. I was very vulnerable and I suffered tremendously. When I regained my health, I had to reconcile my healthy self with the trauma of living exposed with untreated mental illness. It was difficult. Good mental health supports helped me tremendously.

Almost immediately after I stabilized, I heard about involuntary outpatient commitment and knew I would advocate very hard to bring this treatment option to New Jersey because I believed it could help others from living with untreated mental illness that put themselves and possibly others in danger.

My first testimony was at least 20 years ago. Many mental health advocates were and still are against this treatment. It is my belief that, if any of these advocates lived the horror of untreated schizophrenia or other severe mental illness and homelessness, their opinions would change quickly — if they were lucky enough to have treatment and regain mental health.

Finally, IOC became law in 2009. Proponents of IOC had given the Legislature a good picture of untreated mental illness and the law passed unanimously.

Since the passage of IOC, unfortunately, it has faced a number of pitfalls. Implementation was stalled because the Department of Human Services waited until the day of supposed implementation to state there was no money allocated for it. IOC has been discussed in private, invitation-only meetings. I believe some who were invited were agaist involuntary commitment. I was not invited, even though I advocated tirelessly in an appropriate manner for IOC.

I once sat at a mental health conference at which a high-ranking state mental health administrator told a roomful of impressionable people that, while he does not want to implement IOC, it is law and he has to do it. It would have been so much better to say that he hoped IOC could make a difference in someone’s life. I further think $2 million will be too little money to do an adequate job of effectively rolling IOC out.

It is my hope that, when all the negative rhetoric about this treatment is proven untrue and some mentally ill people avoid the inevitable collision course of homelessness and voices because of this treatment, that those who have been so adamantly against IOC will see they did not fully understand the dangers that IOC can prevent — including violence, death and physical illness.
Photo credit

Also see:

Schizophrenia, Medication, and Outpatient Commitment

Personal Accounts: Schizophrenia and Socialization

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