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Mental health system needs reform: Our View

5:58 PM, Oct. 9, 2013  |  Comments
The car chase that ended in the death of an apparently mentally ill woman Thursday in Washington, D.C., is the latest incident to illustrate the need for better mental health services in the U.S.
The car chase that ended in the death of an apparently mentally ill woman Thursday in Washington, D.C., is the latest incident to illustrate the need for better mental health services in the U.S.
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Last week while all eyes were trained on Washington, D.C., and the budget standoff, there were two incidents in two days there that ended in the deaths of profoundly disturbed people.

Miriam Carey, 34, of Stamford, Conn., was shot by police Oct. 3 after a car chase between the White House and the Capitol. Her 1-year-old child was in the back seat of the car. Reports since her death have indicated that she was in the grip of mental illness, believing President Barack Obama was stalking her and controlling her movements.

The next day, John Constantino, 64, of Mount Laurel, N.J., set himself on fire on the National Mall, later dying from his injuries. We do not know much about Constantino's motives, but his actions bespeak a troubled soul.

These are isolated incidents. But they put a spotlight on a social problem that is very real: Our nation's system for providing mental health services to those who need them is badly frayed and woefully inadequate.

In Wisconsin, a state task force has recommended a set of policy changes that would seek to begin to address this issue. The proposals that task force members offered are relatively small - and still, given the fact that many of them cost money, they may be politically difficult to pass. But they are a good starting point for a discussion that we need to have.

Following are some of the recommendations of the task force, which was created by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos to address a bipartisan concern:

? Give mental health professionals, not just police officers, the authority to send people into emergency detention. Wisconsin is one of only five states to require a police officer for detention. Doctors and mental health professionals have the power to do so if it's their professional judgment that the person is a danger to himself or herself or others.

? Similarly, allow family members or some others with a close relationship to a person to take the first steps toward emergency detention. We have seen cases where family members expressed concerns that a mentally ill individual might commit an act of violence. And while they would not have anything like sole discretion, the task force recommendation would increase their power.

? Make it easier for poor families receiving Medicaid to get in-home treatment for children.

? Expand mental health services in rural areas by providing matching funds to counties that have or establish mobile mental health crisis teams.

As is evident from the recommendations, there are two guiding concerns at work. The first is the protection of the public from those with untreated mental illness who might act violently. In an era of mass shootings, the hard fact is that this is a necessary consideration.

The second type of consideration, though, is the moral imperative to connect people who need help with the services that can make them better.

Adopting the state task force's recommendations would be a start toward addressing a problem that has been too easily ignored for too long. We hope legislators from central Wisconsin will support moving the proposals forward.

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