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10 YEARS AGO: Editorial: Has the county done enough for mentally ill?

The Union Editorial

Editor’s note: This editorial was originally published Jan. 10, 2006 by The Union.

So how far have Nevada County’s mental health services come since Jan. 10, 2001?

We are reporting today that county officials feel they have made some progress in improving security and treatment since Scott Thorpe went on his murderous rampage that all agree was brought on by a deteriorating mental condition.

Thorpe was under the care of the county when he lost control and took the lives of three innocent people and wounded or injured three others. The county acknowledged in the courts that it held some responsibility for the deaths when it settled with the families of two of the victims.

It was clear five years ago that changes needed to be made, but has enough been done?

The county has since installed bulletproof glass and metal detectors in some of its buildings, hired security guards and instituted an ID-badge system as a result of the shootings that left an entire community quaking in fear until Thorpe was apprehended later that day.

Bob Erickson, who recently announced his retirement as the department’s director, says internal changes made include the sharing of patients’ caseloads and having two full-time psychiatrists on staff.

The question, of course, is whether the changes have gone far enough to help mentally ill people get the treatment they need. Is the county sufficiently committed to the treatment of mental illness? What will it do with Proposition 63 money that is targeted for new programs to treat the mentally ill?

Erickson’s retirement gives the county an opportunity to hire a mental health-care professional. The person who gets the job should not be a professional administrator. He or she needs to be someone who has worked in the trenches with patients and alongside those who have devoted their lives to working in this field.

The Board of Supervisors also needs to evaluate whether the county is spending enough money for treatment and whether its staff can handle the current caseload.

The events of Jan. 10, 2001, show that we just can’t dismiss mental illness as something that only affects other people. Its victims can be as random as those who died or were hurt that day. Many of us have family members or friends who have mental health issues, as well.

It seems that in past years, government has been trying to get out of the mental-health field, which is complicated, challenging and expensive. At the same time our commitment is wavering, our population is swelling, and that should create growing concerns.

Our approach to this problem is a measure of the health of our society. It’s important that we take care of those who need help, or others may suffer in ways that we never imagined.

Laura Wilcox, Pearlie Mae Feldman, Michael Markle and the other victims were just living their lives like any of us that day. We’ll never know if a more attentive or well-financed Behavioral Health Department would have made a difference.

The county, however, can’t slide into any sort of complacency that might be brought on by the passage of time. It must always remain committed to giving the best possible care to those with mental illnesses.

It remains, though, to be seen if that commitment is there and will remain there.

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