By Nicole Hennessy
State Sen. Tom Patton hasn’t read the newly introduced bill, SB 350, since the Senate is currently on summer recess – so he’s far from being able to debate the pros and cons of the legislation affecting Ohio’s mentally ill population.
“Bills are like short stories,” he said. “You have to read them very carefully to try to find out what it is that they say.”
SB 350, introduced by state Sen. Dave Burke and backed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), would amend current legislation, giving judges the power to send people to outpatient treatment, among other provisions.
It’s “a commitment situation,” Bob Spada, former senator and current president of NAMI Ohio’s board, said of the bill. “If the judge tells individuals they need to take their medication sometimes that works, whereas they just might not want to take medication on their own.”
Patton agreed, saying he trusts judges to make the correct decision based on their being elected. Using it as an example of how self-regulating medication can end badly, he referenced the closing of many state mental hospitals in the ’80s, with the reasoning that people should have the right to administer their own medications and take care of themselves.
“It’s my personal opinion,” he said, “that many people who choose to sleep in a refrigerator carton under a bridge and live the life of a homeless person, was very likely one of those people, that at one point, was in an institution being medicated.”
Like many other organizations, NAMI is known to accept very large contributions from pharmaceutical companies. In a society so used to lobbying by industries and corporations, it is often absent from discussion.
Separating the interests of billion-dollar industries from programs implemented to help people often leads to many gray areas, such as legislation increasing prescription medication use being backed by parties that could benefit from the situation.
In terms of lobbying, Patton says it often comes down to weighing the pros and cons, such as having a certain medication available or not.
NAMI recently launched a new campaign – to travel around in a hard-to-miss recreational vehicle covered with pictures of presumed patients smiling, accompanied by a few facts.
“Mental illness affects 1 in 5 families,” the side of the vehicle reads.
Sometimes Spada parks the RV, stands outside of it and waits for questions.
“Over the past couple years,” he said, “it occurred to me that people don’t talk about mental health issues.”
Several times during his 10-year tenure as senator, Spada listened to the stories of people with family members afflicted in some way, having nowhere to turn. He realized that people feel that the stigma is so bad they can’t talk about it, something he compares to the state of breast cancer 30 years ago.
Now, with modern treatments and medications, he said, “It appears people have less to be afraid of than they did decades ago.”
Citing a personal experience, Spada says one of his family members was diagnosed as bipolar while he was still a senator.
“At that point in my life, I started to look at mental illness separately from other illnesses,” he said and, since then, he began volunteering and addressing those issues.
As far as the RV initiative goes, he hopes the more casual conversations people have on the topic, the more society will feel comfortable seriously discussing issues like bipolar disorder or schizophrenia.
Too far downhill
Opponents of SB 350 say the bill gives judges too much power and infringes on individuals’ rights; that judges would have the authority to step in before someone with a mental illness who is unaware of the need for treatment goes too far downhill, and to send them to treatment without precedent.
But Betsy Johnson, NAMI Ohio’s associate executive director, said SB 350 “clarifies Ohio’s current law with regard to outpatient treatment.”
She continued, saying, “Current law is very confusing; so as a result, judges in different parts of the state interpret it differently.”
According to Johnson, NAMI Ohio’s goal is to make it clear, and in addition to the ability of a judge to commit someone to a hospital, he or she would also have the authority to commit someone to outpatient treatment – which is preferable, in her opinion.
Johnson added that one reason for opposition to this bill stems from a provision that would move people from the back of the line to the front, making some in need of help wait even longer for assistance.
“Unfortunately, there’s not enough money to go around for everybody who needs it,” she said.
Another factor she acknowledges spurs opposition is that the amount of money the state spends to fund mental health programs will not increase under SB 350.
Rachel Childs, associate director of the Ohio Empowerment Coalition (OEC), encourages people to do their research and follow the bill.
The OEC, having been invited by NAMI to review it, published a list of four ways in which SB 350 might be improved.
One of the concerns Childs had is the amount of new cases that will flood service providers and caseworkers.
“Those folks are already dealing with a high number of clients who equally deserves fair attention,” Childs said. “So I think we were worried about how sucessful that would be in actually playing itself out.”
As far as the possible increase in prescription drug use, she said psychiatric drugs are easily prescribed, and while NAMI goes out of its way to encourage nondrug treatment, the availability of the drugs overshadows it due to the convenience factor.
Another suggestion the OEC made was “something akin to an ombudsman program,” Childs explained. This would pair the individual going through the court system – “the consumer” – with an experienced professional outside of the particular situation.
And while she admits this could get expensive, she said a possible option is for the OEC to train individuals.
Meanwhile, ever since the NAMI RV has been on the road, Johnson has noticed an increase in calls from people interested in getting help.
“We want people to be talking about it,” she said of mental illness. “We want it to be in your face.”
SIDEBAR: The Mental Health Advocacy Coalition reports that behavioral health disorders, which include mental illnesses and alcohol and substance abuse disorders, affect everyone. A recent poll found that two out of three Ohioans are affected by a friend or family member with an addiction and/or mental illness. Over 2.8 million Ohioans have a diagnosable mental illness. Over 550,000 adult Ohioans have a severe mental illness.