April 09, 2005

Michigan's New Treatment Law

The Beginning of Hope: Kevin's Law to Aid Mentally Ill; Program Launched Today Makes Michigan's Mental Health Treatment Law More Humane

Press Release - DATELINE: ARLINGTON, Va., March 29

Effective today, Kevin's Law enables Michigan to better help those who refuse treatment because of incapacitating symptoms of illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The package of bills known as Kevin's Law (SB 683-86) was championed by Sens. Tom George (R, 20th District) and Virg Bernero (D, 23rd
District) and signed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in December.

Kevin's Law allows judges to order outpatient treatment for people with untreated severe mental illnesses who meet specific criteria, including a recent history of hospitalizations, incarcerations, or behavior dangerous to themselves or others because of their illness. Forty-two (42) states allow the use of this effective treatment mechanism, known as assisted outpatient treatment (AOT).

The progressive measure is named for Kevin Heisinger, who was beaten to death in a Kalamazoo bus station in August 2000 by Brian Williams, a man with untreated schizophrenia. Williams' illness caused him to cycle in and out of institutions and the criminal justice system for years. He was functional when in treatment, but his condition deteriorated when he stopped taking medication.

This preventable tragedy spurred Sen. George, a doctor and then state representative, and Sen. Bernero, a consistent champion of those afflicted by mental illness, to introduce Kevin's Law. "Kevin's Law will make our communities safer and at the same time provide compassionate, earlier care for people who seriously need it," Sen. George said. "Until today, families had to wait until their loved ones made a threat or actually hurt someone before they could get help, and then the only option was inpatient care. Now people can be helped earlier, and on an outpatient basis. If the treatment is successful, the person never needs to reach a crisis point and hospitalization may be altogether averted."

"Kevin's Law will refocus our state's mental health system on those most in need of treatment," said Sen. Bernero. "It is a vital first step in the revitalization of mental health care in Michigan."

"Gov. Granholm and Michigan's legislature are to be congratulated for reaching out to help a small group of people whose severe and untreated mental illnesses shatter their lives," said Treatment Advocacy Center Executive Director Mary T. Zdanowicz. The Treatment Advocacy Center is a national nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to treatment of severe mental illnesses. "States that have effectively implemented assisted outpatient treatment laws have had well-documented successes in reducing rates of hospitalization, homelessness, arrests, and incarceration, saving both lives and money."

One example is Kendra's Law, New York's 5-year-old assisted outpatient treatment program. New statistics from that state show that during assisted outpatient treatment, 74 percent fewer participants experienced homelessness, 77 percent fewer experienced psychiatric hospitalization, 83 percent fewer experienced arrest, and 87 percent fewer experienced incarceration. Individuals in Kendra's Law were also more likely to regularly participate in services and take prescribed medication. Sharon Carpinello, R.N., Ph.D., Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health, also noted that AOT improved the mental health system as a whole, an unintended but welcome result. "We have seen improved access to mental health services, improved coordination of service planning, enhanced accountability, and improved collaboration between the mental health and court systems," she noted.

Ann Arbor resident Donna Orrin, MSW, is a consumer, the author of Consumer Involvement in Policymaking for the Michigan Department of Community Health, and a member of Gov. Granholm's Mental Health Commission. There were times that Orrin did not believe she had bipolar disorder despite experiencing extreme symptoms of that illness -- a common condition that leads to treatment refusal. "My mother had me committed against my will three times, and I would get so mad at her," Orrin said. "But thanks to her willingness to help me when I was not able to help myself, I have now been in treatment for a number of years, and have gained insight into my illness. I have also worked on my recovery process and have created a quality life of my personal choice. I often now think that my mother must have loved me very much to intervene when my illness made me push her away."

Orrin's experiences have made her a strong advocate for other consumers and for Kevin's Law. "Assisted outpatient treatment is meant to help those who cannot identify their symptoms, and therefore do not seek help. As a result, they could be at risk for suicide, homelessness, incarceration, or vulnerability to danger from others. They could lose their spouses or other family members; they could lose their jobs. They could become violent, solely because of their symptoms. They deserve better. Kevin's Law can give them the same chance I had."

"There are too many people with serious mental illness whom we have not been helping, and Kevin's Law can change that," agreed Mark Reinstein of Southfield, President and CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan and a member of the Governor's Mental Health Commission. "We are worried about people who are homeless and living under a bridge, who would never choose that lifestyle if their brain disorder was being treated. They merit our intervention. The sponsors of this legislation deserve credit for their efforts to improve conditions for those with severe mental illness. Combined with simultaneous advance psychiatric directive legislation that was adopted, and with the report of Gov. Granholm's Mental Health Commission, Kevin's Law is an important step toward a broader vision to address the many challenges -- from treatment to housing to funding -- that confront our system."

The change in Michigan law is part of a national trend toward making mental health treatment laws more humane.

The Treatment Advocacy Center ( http://www.psychlaws.org ) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers to timely and humane treatment for millions of Americans with severe mental illnesses.


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