Time to protect society
When mentally ill people are a danger to themselves or others, it is a tough situation for people who deal with them. Trying to keep society safe while getting useful treatment to people who need it is a complicated and difficult balancing act.
But a tragic and growing list of killings by people judged to be unbalanced forces us as a society to confront how we deal with mental illness.
As the anniversary nears of the murders of Casper College instructors Jim Krum and Heidi Arnold followed by the suicide of the killer, Krumm’s son Chris, the tragedy of such violence looms large.
Recent murders linked to mental illness in other states include the 20 children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut last December, the 32 killed at Virginia Tech in 2007 and the six killed in Arizona in 2011 when Rep. Gabby Giffords was gravely injured.
And on Nov. 19 a case in Virginia again illustrated how dangerous it is when systems fail for people in mental health crises.
As the Washington Post reported, “Virginia officials are investigating whether doctors tried, and failed, to find help for Austin "Gus" Deeds before he apparently stabbed his father, state Sen. Creigh Deeds, and shot himself in rural Virginia Tuesday. Several sources say the younger Deeds, who was 24, was evaluated at a local hospital and sent home when doctors couldn’t find a place in a psychiatric facility.”
The state of Virginia is investigating exactly how the younger man was released when hospitalization could have made a difference.
Against this background we argue that it is urgent that we face these issues. We are grateful that Wyoming legislators are tackling several connected and difficult areas of the law that govern how mental illness is handled in the state.
The Joint Judiciary Committee approved two bills on Nov. 8 that would adjust the statute that deals with involuntary hospitalization of mentally ill patients.
A new definition of mentally ill people who are not capable of caring for themselves, though they don’t pose an immediate threat to themselves or others, is established in the bill; the term is “gravely disabled.”
It allows schizophrenic patients to receive care under laws governing mental health.
The sticky part of the initiative increases the amount of time that a patient can be held without a hearing.
As Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, said of the prosecuting attorney’s current 72-hour window to hold someone, “You’re reall
y scrambling to get your information together to bring (it) all to the judge and prove your case.” The new bill would give authorities 96 hours.
Gingery has been working on how the legal system deals with the mentally ill for 10 years, and he thinks legislators are listening now. “This is the farthest I’ve ever seen us get in making some really good headway,” he said.
Making headway is very good news for the safety of our society and for the appropriate treatment of the mentally ill. When the full Legislature takes up the bills in February, we encourage them to listen carefully to what Rep. Gingery has to say about these complicated and often dangerous interactions.
We can’t avoid the hard work of striking a balance that protects society while being fair to people suffering from potentially dangerous mental health crises.