SB 5269 unanimously cleared the state House in January and the state Senate in early March, so it is now state law. This bill, named after Joel Reuter — a 28-year-old bipolar software engineer who was fatally shot by Seattle police on July 5, 2013, during what his parents testified was a psychotic episode — allows immediate family members of people with mental illness to appeal the denial of treatment by mental health professionals to a judge. Joel’s parents champion this new legislation because they claim that they were unable to get Joel the treatment that he needed after clinicians asserted such treatment was unnecessary. If he received treatment, they say, he might still be alive.
Joel’s Law defines “immediate family member” as “spouse, domestic partner, child, stepchild, parent, stepparent, grandparent, or sibling,” guardian or conservator and allows one to petition the superior court for a review of a mental health professional’s decision not to detain a person for treatment. Once a petition is filed, a notice will be sent to the professional. The professional is then required to notify the court that the person in question has been detained for assessment and treatment if the person has not voluntarily submitted to the court written documentation explaining the reason for the initial decision not to detain. If the court finds, upon review, the petition is merited and that the person in question has refused to voluntarily undergo evaluation and treatment, the court may order a detention as defined in the existing legislation as “the lawful confinement of a person under the provisions of [the current legislation.]” Under current legislation, prior history of hospitalizations or law-enforcement encounters is given great weight in decisions about commitment and release. The bill also mandates that community agencies and mental health practitioners who receive complaints from the court provide easily understood information about this bill and the petition process.
But what provisions does this bill include for those suffering with mental illness who have abusive families or guardians or who do not have sufficient legal power to contest court rulings? Additionally, this bill mentions nothing about increasing funding for the potential influx treatment programs and hospitals will face. During a time when draconian budget cuts are already being made at the national, state and local levels, all of which disproportionately hit the poorest in our society, where is the funding necessary to provide adequate mental health care for more people going to come from?
We should be doing more as a society to adequately provide for and care for people experiencing mental distress – which disproportionately affects low-income populations – but shouldn’t we address inappropriate and oppressive police behavior? Shouldn’t we be scrutinizing the systems that contribute to mental illness and its attending isolative affects – like poverty, economic instability and ever-splaying inequality; the plutocratic capitalism that is one cause of such grinding destitution; the disintegration of support networks such as healthy families; and strong communities driven in large part by the championing of unrealistic individualism that shames people into silent, secluded suffering?
Is opening the door even wider to a dysfunctional system that mutes and further marginalizes already-careworn populations ultimately helpful? If we are going to make it easier for people to be forced into treatment, shouldn’t we also be looking at the current protocols and standards of care to see if they will actually be healing and rehabilitative rather than simply warehousing more vulnerable people out of sight and out of mind?