Prioritizing mental health

We are devoting this week’s newsletter to one of Eileen’s priority bills for the 2014 session. House Bill 2725 will make it easier for individuals with severe mental illness to get the treatment they desperately need by giving family members a path to weigh in on the involuntary treatment of their loved ones. The idea for this bill was brought to Eileen by Doug and Nancy Reuter, parents of Joel Reuter, who was shot and killed by police in Seattle last summer during a period of mental distress.

Joel Reuter was what anyone would call a typical Seattle twenty-something—a successful software engineer living in a condo on Capitol Hill, committed to his career and with a solid group of friends. But Joel made headlines last summer when he fired a gun out his apartment window into the street, believing he was shooting at zombies. Joel was shot after firing his gun directly at the police and he died several hours later.

Over the months leading up to that afternoon the stress of a cancer diagnosis and a fast-paced career led Joel to stop taking the medications that kept his bipolar disorder in check. Joel suddenly stopped answering his friends’ phone calls, attempted suicide multiple times, and crashed his car at 140 miles per hour.

Joel’s condition had been treated successfully before and his family and friends knew that if Joel could just spend a few weeks being closely monitored in a facility, he would stabilize and become himself again. But in his condition, Joel didn’t believe that he needed treatment.

In Washington a person can be committed involuntarily only if a Designated Mental Health Professional determines that the individual poses a serious and immediate threat to himself or others. Although Joel’s friends and family tried many times to have him involuntarily committed to a facility, the authorities assigned to Joel’s case didn’t feel they had sufficient evidence that he posed an immediate danger and Joel was released after being committed for only 72 hours.

One week later, Joel was firing shots into a day-lit city street from his apartment window.

Thankfully no one else was injured that day, but it is a tragedy that even one life was lost that afternoon. The situation never would have escalated into violence if Joel had gotten the help he needed when his family had asked for it. Less publicized than Joel’s dramatic death are the 38,000 people annually who commit suicide, more often than not the victims of untreated mental illness. The families of these people have witnessed the damages of mental illness as well as the hope that treatment can bring for their loved ones.

Joel Reuter’s parents came to Olympia this fall to share their story with Eileen and to find a solution that would ensure that no family would have to watch their child suffer the way they had had to watch Joel over the past year. Together we developed a solution that would ensure that people with mental illness—who often are unable to ask for help—get the treatment they need as soon as they need it.

House Bill 2725 would give family members of a person in a mental health crisis the opportunity to appeal a Designated Mental Health Professional’s decision not to detain their relative in a facility. Family members often know much more about their relative’s history with mental illness; they can identify the warning signs that a crisis could turn violent, and they can present valid evidence to a court about whether that person needs to be involuntarily committed to a facility.

Working on this bill has meant hearing many tragic stories of untreated mental illness, but it is encouraging to work with people on all sides of the political spectrum to tackle this issue. This is not a partisan issue; this bill will help people in mental health crises get back to their lives, so their families have the reassurance that their loved ones are okay, and so everyone in our society can feel safe from random acts of violence.

While House Bill 2725 is by no means a complete solution to the problems surrounding mental illness and violent tragedies, it moves Washington’s mental health system one step closer to where we want it to be. We passed this bill out of the House last week unanimously (click here to watch); now it moves to the Senate, where we hope to see the same level of bipartisan support.

Thank you for taking the time to read this legislative update. As always, please do not hesitate to contact us with questions or feedback.


Eileen & Joe