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SPECIAL COVERAGE: Living With Wildfires: San Diego Firestorm 10 Years Later

How San Diego County Deals With Severe Mental Illness

Dr. Michael Plopper, the chief medical officer of Sharp HealthCare Behavioral Health Services, and Piedad Garcia, assistant deputy director of San Diego County’s Adult/Older Adult Mental Health Services, talk to KPBS.

GUESTS

Dr. Michael Plopper, chief medical officer of Sharp HealthCare Behavioral Health Services

Piedad Garcia, assistant deputy director of San Diego County’s Adult/Older Adult Mental Health Services.

Transcript

San Diego County Mental Health Resources

Crisis line: 1-888-724-7240

Psychiatric Hospital of San Diego County

San Diego County Office of Violence Prevention

The school shooting in Connecticut has sparked a national dialogue on what can be done to treat people with mental illness. While it is not known whether the gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, suffered from a mental illness, there have been several reports that he had a developmental disorder.

In California, Laura's Law would allow court-ordered outpatient treatment to people who show they could be a threat to themselves or others. Counties can opt in or out of implementing the 2002 law. Only one county in the state, Nevada County, has opted into the law. Los Angeles County has implemented Laura's Law as a pilot program.

San Diego County's Mental Health board voted in 2011 to implement Laura's Law, but the San Diego County Department of Health and Human Services decided not to implement the law.

Piedad Garcia, the assistant deputy director for one of that department’s programs, told KPBS they decided not to pass the law for a number of reasons, including costs and not burdening hospitals.

"The protection of the individual’s rights that we were also concerned about," she said. "And we thought that after stakeholder input and balancing the pros and cons of this implementation, that we would provide an alternative to Laura’s Law."

Instead, the county's behavioral health department chose to implement a different program, the In-home Outpatient Treatment or IHOT, in January 2012.

Alfredo Aguirre, behavioral health director for San Diego County Health and Human Services, says IHOT serves a broader population compared to Laura's Law.

He says the mental health professionals who make up three county IHOT teams work to get people in the program healthy and to find them resources including drug and alcohol rehabilitation. This year, 127 people are participating in San Diego County's IHOT program and nearly half of them are "engaged", meaning they've agreed to receive services.

But Dr. Michael Plopper, chief medical officer for Sharp HealthCare Behavioral Health Services, says while IHOT is a good program, it shouldn't be a substitute for Laura's Law.

"Laura's Law is the most reasonable way for people to get the treatment they need" he said.

Plopper says he sees emergency rooms full of people suffering from mental illness who come back time and time again and refuse treatment. He says implementing Laura's Law in San Diego would help reduce health care costs and over crowding in jails.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly described one of the provisions of Laura's Law. The law does not force people to take medication. The story has since been corrected.

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