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Laws Protecting Adult Mental Patients Often Frustrate Families : Health: Psychiatric treatment and medication cannot be forced upon apparently unstable grown-ups, which prevents social services from intervening.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Soon after Simi Valley police shot his mentally ill son, Bob Pedersen said that under the same circumstances, he might have pulled the trigger himself.

Nine days later, a Newbury Park father confronted with a similar dilemma did just that, shooting his 37-year-old son in the head.

The two cases this month underscore the problems many parents face when seeking help for their adult children who are mental health patients.

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County mental health officials are often overwhelmed and unprepared to treat the hordes of people in need, parents say. But when police are called in, officers often use more force than needed to subdue a patient and seldom address the long-term problem.

The best weapons for dealing with out-of-control children--psychiatric treatment and medication--cannot be forced on the patients because of laws protecting the rights of the mentally ill.

“The laws have tied the hands of the police and the mental health people,” said Pedersen, who saw his son transferred last week from the hospital to Ventura County Jail.

“He isn’t getting any better without the medicine,” the father said. “The medicine doesn’t cure him, but it camouflages the symptoms.”

Kathleen Payne, president of the Ventura County Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said parents of mentally ill adults often are helpless against their children’s decisions to abandon the medication they are taking.

“When patients are dangerous to others, the police will take them in,” she said. “Otherwise, they will just walk away from the scene.

“Parents cannot do anything, mental health workers cannot do anything,” Payne said. “Only the police can decide whether the patient is a danger.”

For all the reports of mentally ill people wandering homeless or stuck in a mental hospital or locked up in jail, the majority live at home. As many as 60% of the mentally ill adults in California live with their parents, according to a recent survey by the state Department of Mental Health Services.

With medication and proper treatment, the experience can be tolerable. But when the patients slip from their regimen--or purposely stop taking the drugs--the situation can quickly escalate beyond what parents can handle.

That’s what happened Dec. 18 at the Pedersen’s home in Simi Valley.

Earlier in the day, 32-year-old Mark Pedersen had been shouting religious epithets in his frontyard. Concerned that he had stopped taking his medication, his mother, Bea, called mental health workers. When she got no answer, she called the police.

Her son bolted inside the house and locked himself in his bedroom when he saw the Simi Valley officers arrive. As the police broke down the bedroom door, Pedersen lunged at them with a pocket knife, police said. Officer John Hughes shot Pedersen and accidentally wounded another officer.

Pedersen spent the next 10 days in Simi Valley Hospital and now remains in jail, awaiting trial on attempted murder charges.

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His father, Bob Pedersen, can understand why the officer shot as Mark Pedersen lunged at the two policemen. But the father faults them for moving too quickly, especially when a mental health team was on the way to the house.

“They should not have forced my son in just the matter of a couple minutes,” Bob Pedersen said. “They broke down the door to save his life so they could shoot him.”

Simi Valley police officials will not comment on Pedersen’s parents’ claim. But they say they often are called to deal with the mentally ill at the most volatile times.

“If they don’t present a clear danger to themselves or someone else at the time we’re dealing with them, we can’t take them in,” said Simi Valley Police Sgt. Bob Gardner. “All we do is enforce the laws. We don’t make them.”

The laws governing the treatment of mentally ill people grew out of years of abuses--with mental patients committed to hospitals or forced into drug therapy without any say. Civil liberties attorneys fought for and won strict criteria for when and how to treat mental disorders. Essentially, a mentally ill person has the freedom to choose whether to seek treatment or take medication.

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These rules, said one Newbury Park mother, kept her son from getting the help he needed. Instead, the problems escalated into a violent confrontation last week--with her son attacking his sister and her husband pulling out a handgun and shooting him.

Debra Walker’s 37-year-old son is now in jail on criminal charges, and his mental problems, which his mother said were prompted by a string of personal disappointments, remain untreated.

“The law definitely needs to be changed,” said Walker, who said she sought help for her son, James, from public and private mental-health service groups across the county before Wednesday’s shooting.

“I spent two weeks on the phone talking to everybody. I called every organization I could think of.”

But with her son’s refusal to undergo treatment, she said, she was helpless. “I tried to talk to James,” she said. “But everybody denies that they’re sick. Everybody else is sick except the person who is sick.”

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Penny Matthews of Ventura County Mental Health said her counselors are ready to respond when their services are needed. But the patient must want help.

“It’s a real difficult thing,” Matthews said. “To take someone’s freedom away from them and hospitalize them, you have to meet real strict criteria.”

What’s more, counselors and police officers cannot always tell when a patient is about to become violent, Matthews said.

“Unfortunately, when you’re dealing with people who are mentally ill, there’s no crystal ball,” she said. “Unless you’re with someone 24 hours a day, there’s no way to say you can prevent something from happening.”

State Mental Health Services Director Stephen Mayberg has heard both sides of the debate many times and still has not made up his mind.

“There’s always a dynamic tension between those who would like to have more control and those who believe individuals have the right to govern their own behavior,” he said.

“But certainly, when you have instances where someone is shot or injured . . . that’s when you really wish you could intervene,” he said.

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Because so many patients live with their parents, counselors train clients and their family members to recognize the symptoms arising from failure to continue medication, Mayberg said.

“One of the things we see as critical is being able to work on the relationship between parents and their adult children,” he said.

But all those efforts are of little consequence to Debra Walker, whose son sits in jail in lieu of $250,000 bail.

“When a mother begs for help, I think it should be given,” she said. “Somebody should have opened that door for help when I was asking.”

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Times correspondent Stephanie Brommer contributed to this report.


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