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Kern County adopts 'Laura's Law' for mentally ill

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday made Kern the ninth county in California to adopt Laura's Law, a bill aimed at increasing mental health care for potentially high-risk patients who refuse treatment.

Laura's Law, authored by Assemblywoman Helen Thomson (D-Davis), passed the state legislature in 2002. It came about following a tragic incident in Nevada County where a mental health worker (Laura Wilcox, for whom the bill was named) was shot and killed along with two co-workers by a mentally ill patient who had previously resisted treatment.

Strongly endorsed by the county mental health department as well as the sheriff's department, the law gives the health department greater authority to mandate patients with a history of hospital visits or arrests to attend outpatient treatment.

Officials cannot force patients to accept drugs - a chief concern among the law's critics - but it can require people to visit psychiatrists and therapists.

It keeps you out of the hospital," said Brad Cloud, the deputy director of Kern's mental health department. "You actually retain your right to refuse medications if you choose to, but you're still required to participate in outpatient mental health services"

Supervisor Mick Gleason, who said he has a family member with a mental illness, was the most vocal member of the discussion Tuesday in the supervisors' chambers. The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in four Americans has a family member with a mental illness.

"It is critically important that we manage the health care of these people in need as best we can and make sure we don't cross over that civil liberty line, which is so absolutely critical for all of us," he said following the decision. "If she was going in a direction where we could anticipate violent tendencies, then it becomes clear to me that we need to step in and one of the diversionary tactics we could use is Laura's Law, which I think could forestall any negative consequences to my sister, or to anybody."

Sheriff Donny Youngblood, who last week saw his department involved in an officer-involved shooting of a person with mental health issues, argued the safety of his deputies and members of the public demands the mental health department have more authority to treat people.

"Sometimes it's very difficult to tell the difference between someone who has a severe mental illness and someone who's under the influence of drugs because they can act exactly the same," he said. "The truth of the matter is, in the right set of circumstances, either one of them can kill you."

Coleen Peters, a board member of the local NAMI chapter, was thrilled with the decision.

"It's going to be a huge money saver number one, a huge emotion saver to family members and it's going to open up many doors for people who want to recover from mental illness," she said. "Nobody wants to be mentally ill, no one does."

Officials say the program uses existing resources and will not require additional tax dollars. The adopted procedures will go into effect in October, following a training period for county workers.

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