On last year’s anniversary of the shooting rampage that led to the slaying of 32 victims on the Virginia Tech campus by a young man with untreated severe mental illness, we lamented that not much had changed in the intervening years.
Today, we can report that some change has come – not just in Virginia but in other states where families and individuals struggle daily with the disabling effects of untreated mental illnesses
While bold reforms are still needed to make court-ordered outpatient treatment available to all who need it in Virginia, advocates for better treatment options got two bills passed and signed into law in the legislative session that is just ending. One expands the role of family members in seeking mandated outpatient treatment (MOT) for loved ones being discharged from hospitalization, and the other helps prevent the state’s community service boards from opting out of providing MOT to qualifying patients.
Elsewhere, a bill spearheaded by grassroots advocates and supported by the Treatment Advocacy Center in Maine produced a law expanding who can petition the courts directly for an assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) order in psychiatric crisis. The law also now requires mental health examiners to consider a person’s history.
Meanwhile, in West Virginia, the governor signed into law a bill expanding a seven-year-old assisted outpatient treatment pilot program statewide. The new law ensures that any person can file a petition seeking a treatment compliance order from the court for an individual with severe mental illness or addiction whose failure to take prescribed medication has resulted in either repeated hospitalization or conviction for violent crime.
And in New Jersey, the state has taken steps to put its court-ordered outpatient law to work. Having completed an open application process, the state will announce within coming weeks the counties that have been selected to implement pilot AOT programs.
Additional bills remain under consideration or on governor’s desks around the country.
Each of these legislative reforms required the tenacity of grassroots advocates, the determination of bill sponsors dedicated to reform and the enlightenment of legislators who saw through the fog of misinformation raised by opponents and committed themselves to lowering legal barriers to treatment for individuals in need of involuntary treatment.
The obstacles to treatment of severe mental illness remain daunting. Preventable tragedies associated with untreated mental illness continue to occur daily. On an anniversary such as this one, we all pause to remember the lives that were lost unnecessarily on April 16, 2007, but we also believe it is fitting to take note of the hard-won changes that may save others.