Guest: Ask candidates about reforms to mental-health care and Joel’s Law
How to evaluate whether legislative candidates would vote for laws that would help mentally ill people get the care they need when they need it, according guest columnists Doug and Nancy Reuter.
Special to The Times
ABOUT 14 months ago our son, Joel Reuter, was shot and killed by the Seattle police SWAT team. His death was tragic and very preventable. But the real tragedy is this: little has changed in the last year. More people are dead or in prison because mentally ill people in Washington cannot get the help they need.
After his death, we realized that while the SWAT team killed our son, it was Washington state laws that caused Joel’s death. Laws that put barriers to treatment for someone so severely ill are not only unfair, they are cruel. We don’t do this with other diseases — we treat before tragedy.
Before you vote in the Nov. 4 election, please ask legislative candidates if they would vote for laws that would help mentally ill people get the care they need when they need it.
Joel suffered three psychotic episodes over nine years. The first two were during his college years in Arizona. Watching our son turn into a paranoid, delusional stranger was a frightening experience.
Signing the papers to have him involuntarily evaluated and committed was the hardest thing we had ever done. But, unlike Washington law, at least Arizona law allowed us to get him timely help. Both of Joel’s court-ordered treatments in Arizona consisted of combined inpatient and outpatient treatment for one full year. We experienced the miracle of his sanity being gradually and fully restored both times.
When Joel moved to Washington, we did not know how impossible it would be to get him help when he needed it. Joel’s third episode, in Seattle, was agonizing. First, the dozens of calls Joel’s friends and we made to King County’s designated mental-health professionals accomplished very little.
Then, when he finally did get hospitalized, it was too little, too late, and there was never any mandatory follow-up.
When in the throes of an episode, many people with a serious mental illness do not even know they’re sick. They are unable to seek help voluntarily, and they see those who love them and trying to help as the enemy. Involuntary hospitalization with follow-up is not only needed, it is the compassionate thing to do.
In Washington, if a person is hospitalized, it only lasts up to 14 days and it’s rarely enough. In Joel’s case, when he was discharged, he didn’t even know who he was. Three weeks later, he was dead.
After discharge, there is a follow-up process available known as a “less restrictive alternative” (LRA), but it’s not always used. We wanted this for Joel, but were told doctors couldn’t find anyone to monitor the LRA. Why not? A court-ordered LRA requiring medication compliance would have saved Joel’s life like it did in Arizona.
Without follow-up, many like Joel slip quickly back to the point where they again become a threat to themselves or others — often ending up dead or in jail.
Earlier this year, in an attempt to spare other families the trauma we experienced, we lobbied the Legislature to change Washington law.
The right of judicial appeal was the focus of Joel’s Law. Currently, families are not allowed to appeal a “no treatment” decision. A county’s designated mental-health professionals have unilateral control of evaluation referrals. This is why Joel’s Law is needed. It would allow an immediate family member of a mentally ill person, who is not referred for involuntary evaluation, to appeal that decision.
There is an obvious need for comprehensive mental-health reform in Washington. Psychiatric boarding, the practice of keeping mentally ill patients in emergency-room beds, is now illegal. It could lead to “streeting,” or releasing patients back to the streets without treatment, resulting in more tragedy.
Incoming state lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee must provide funding for more psychiatric beds, pass Joel’s Law, and strengthen Washington’s LRA law to function like New York’s Kendra’s Law and California’s Laura’s Law, which have proved to reduce costs, hospitalizations, homelessness and incarcerations.
Voters should elect candidates who would pass legislation that helps those who can’t help themselves. Let’s adopt a policy of treatment before tragedy.
Doug and Nancy Reuter, former Minnesota and Washington residents, now live in Dallas, Texas. Doug Reuter is a former Minnesota state representative and the inventor of the Sequence board game.