Some push lawmakers to allow forced mental health treatment

Mental Health

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kelly Gunning and her husband were getting ready for work one morning in January when their son, whom she said has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, attacked them with a rock.

Gunning said her son, Nathan Donahue, was getting treatment at the time from the state’s assertive community treatment program. But the program was voluntary and Gunning said Donahue would often refuse to take his medication or receive treatment. The result was a horrible scene in Gunning’s home, where she said she had to stop her son from hitting her husband “until he looked like a piece of hamburger.”

“He was there to kill us. He made no mistake about making that completely clear,” Gunning said. “I am afraid of my own son now.”

Gunning’s emotional testimony before a panel of state lawmakers was part of mental health advocates’ push Wednesday urging state lawmakers to allow judges to order some people to get outpatient mental health treatment if they have had at least two forced hospitalizations within a year. Advocates say it could help stop the “revolving door” of patients who are forcibly committed and get better with medication only to be released and fall back into dangerous behavior without supervision of doctors.

Lawmakers on the state House and Senate’s health and welfare committees began meeting Wednesday to prepare for the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January. Republican Sen. Julie Raque Adams, the chairwoman of the panel, had to pause the hearing momentarily to wipe away tears. She declined to endorse the proposal Wednesday, but said that “this is one of those issues I think we can no longer stick our heads in the sand and ignore.”

Donahue is now in the Fayette County Detention Center facing multiple assault charges. Gunning said while cleaning out his home, she found a year’s worth of unopened medication.

“I need you to understand that people like my son are like Alzheimer’s patients,” Gunning said. “They don’t believe they are sick.”

At least 21 states have laws allowing some form of mandatory outpatient treatment, according to Michael Gray, advocacy coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Kentucky. Various versions of the idea have been proposed in Kentucky since at least 2013, with no success.

The latest proposal would be for a pilot program, limiting it to 30 people in the first year and 60 people in the second year. But advocates have struggled to come up with a cost for the program, and lawmakers have been unwilling to approve something without knowing how much they will have to pay for it.

Kentucky Public Advocate Ed Monahan also worried language in the proposal would force people into treatment based on what they might do if left untreated.

“Most of the ways we take people’s liberty in this country is for behavior that they have committed for which has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they deserve their incarceration. … This is a dramatic, new lesser standard,” he said, adding: “The best way to get long term change behavior is by the person choosing to do it through engagement.”

Sheila Schuster, executive director of the Kentucky Mental Health Coalition, said she and other mental health advocates have offered to remove the language from the bill about predicting someone’s future behavior. But the bill still did not have enough support to pass the state legislature.

Monahan’s arguments were not enough to sway Gunning.

“You know what? You could be wrong, Ed,” she said. “And I don’t want to be dead wrong.”

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