David Heinen: Emergency mental health outreach desperately needed
The night of Aug. 3, Heather Vance of North San Juan met a woman in town who declared her intention to start a 72-hour “cleansing fire“ somewhere nearby.
Vance and friends were able to stop the woman from initiating this madness and, calling 911, were told by fire dispatch that an “actual fire” was needed before any response was possible.
Vance and other community members then monitored the situation as best they could, talking the woman down. But the next day, apparently as a reaction to the loss of her dog, the woman announced that she had started her truck on fire.
Vance then contacted Health and Human Services. It is not clear if they actually responded to the site. Eventually the woman started her cleansing fire, which was contained by the community, and she was arrested, again with help from the local citizens.
Here yet again is a blatant example of the need for emergency outreach mental health response reminiscent of the incident in which a mentally disturbed woman chased an officer with a knife and was shot and killed in front of her children.
Both incidents reveal an appalling lack of capacity on the part of Nevada County to respond to mental health emergencies. What did Health and Human Services offer as a mitigation? Did they alert authorities that a 72 hour ‘’cleansing fire“ was being determinedly proposed by a woman clearly departed from her hold on reality? A woman who burned her truck because she had lost her dog? All this during a red flag condition? What was Health and Human Services actually able to do with their existing resources and legal mandate?
It seems to me that this situation could easily have become another River Fire conflagration, taking much of the Ridge with it. I’m guessing Health and Human Services has no funding to support such emergency outreach, and that there is legal ambiguity about when forcible restraint can be enforced on those who feel compelled to create 72-hour cleansing fires in a red flag environment.
Regardless, unless such funding and legal clarity become a reality, this will happen again in our county. It is only a matter of time. And the responsibility lies with us, the taxpayers, to demand from county leadership both fiscal solutions and policy clarity.
Disaster was avoided this time, not because of Nevada County Emergency Services, but because of incredibly responsible commitment to the community by Heather Vance and her friends. I live nearby, and I and my neighbors owe her a huge debt.
We shouldn’t have to depend on everyday citizens to mitigate situations when people with out-of-control mental illness threaten neighbors, not to mention whole communities. Fortunately, Heather Vance and her friends are not everyday citizens.
David Heinen lives in North San Juan.
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