Wisconsin's Mental Illness Mess
A week ago Sunday, 45-year-old Teresa Boone was walking through Kilbourn Reservoir Park in Milwaukee's Riverwest area. Reservoir Park was the site of the highly publicized wilding incident in July of 2011. Ms. Boone would not have been in the park except for the fact that her truck ran out of gas.
According to authorities, 32-year-old James Donegan strangled and stabbed Ms. Boone in the park believing that she was "one of the people who was following him". Family members of Donegan say that he had not been taking medication prescribed for his mental problems.
Relatives of Ms. Boone are wondering: "If he is so mentally incompetent why was this person not in an institution, where he can be supervised and taking his meds?" Good question!
Put another way, if someone's mental condition is such that they are capable of committing murder if they stop taking their medications, how can we let them run the streets without their meds?
Welcome to Wisconsin's mental illness mess.
Thanks to some well-intended but seriously misguided legal action back in the 70's, it's extremely difficult to force mentally ill persons to get the treatment that they need. As a general rule, before someone can be involuntarily committed to receive treatment for mental illness, you have to show that they are dangerous either to themselves or to others. Unfortunately, it's very hard to make that showing unless and until they act out - and by that time, it's too late.
Wisconsin also allows involuntary commitment if someone's mental illness prevents them from understanding that they need medication and that their condition will deteriorate without medication. Nevertheless, it's still a very difficult standard to meet.
Obviously, we shouldn't be involuntarily institutionalizing every person who has any sort of psychological problem. Heck, I've always suspected that at least half of all mental health professionals and two-thirds of Washington politicians have some condition that could be classified as a mental disorder. Don't even get me started about newspaper columnists ...
Still, we don't do anyone a favor by allowing individuals with serious mental illnesses to roam the streets unchecked.
When I hear about people living under overpasses in the middle of winter, I wonder whether this is primarily a product of homelessness or rather severe mental illness? When does a desire for "independence" become a sign of extreme mental illness?
I'm sure that there's nothing more frustrating for a family to have to watch one of their loved ones sink deeper into mental illness and not being able to do anything to stop the decline - until it's too late.
We simply have to make it easier for society to force the mentally ill among us to get the help they need. Until we fix Wisconsin's mental illness mess though, we're all at risk.