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Bill looks to equip mental health patient advocates - San Mateo Daily Journal

Legislation to address caregiver concerns with involuntary detention

Source: San Mateo Daily Journal

Ana Mata, San Mateo Daily Journal

As the state and county continue to pursue policies expanding the parameters for involuntarily detentions in cases of mental health or substance abuse concerns, local leaders are looking to make sure loved ones can be informed advocates.

When former San Carlos Mayor Laura Parmer-Lohan experienced firsthand how out of the loop a caretaker can be when a loved one above the age of 18 is involuntarily detained, or 5150’d, she felt something had to change.

After taking her loved one to the emergency room during a mental illness episode, Parmer-Lohan said the nurse on duty suggested she go home while they awaited an assignment to a treatment facility. She said it was evident she was not going to be told where.

“The word to describe how I felt about being effectively cut out of the conversation, I felt a lot of anguish,” Parmer-Lohan said. “I didn’t understand it because I had never experienced that kind of treatment as a caregiver in any other situation.”

Working in health care for most of her career, Parmer-Lohan said she felt there was a discrepancy of accommodation and information provided to identified loved ones when the individual is treated for mental illness compared to a physical ailment.

After connecting with support groups, she realized her experience was unfortunately not unique. It was then she approached Assemblymember Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, to share her story and see what changes could be made.

Parmer-Lohan said most websites on mental health crises were positioned toward the person experiencing the crisis, which she felt was “ironic” because that individual often isn’t in the frame of mind to seek resources.

“I couldn’t find anything as a caregiver to somebody who is experiencing a mental health crisis, and I didn’t understand it,” she said.

Since then, Berman co-authored Assembly Bill 2154, which ensures if a person is involuntarily detained, and it is requested from a loved one, the facility detaining the individual would be required to provide the patients’ rights handbook. Berman said this hopes to equip advocates with the most basic of resources to support their loved ones.

“It’s scary enough when somebody who you love is involuntarily detained because they’re having mental health challenges,” Berman said. “What makes it even worse is if you’re totally kept in the dark and you have no idea what’s happening or why.”

Parmer-Lohan said if this information was made available to her, her mind would have been more at ease and she would have least known for how long her loved one could be held.

“I just needed something to help me understand what I was dealing with,” Parmer-Lohan said. “This booklet, to me, feels like it’s a good first start. It’s a framework for describing what the situation is.”

The already established Department of Health Care Services’ patients’ rights handbook, available virtually in nine languages, includes information such as rights as a patient, confidentiality, what to do when you have a complaint, and rights that cannot be denied as well as those that may be denied with good cause.

“Ensuring that the rights of that individual are respected is, I think, a little bit different than what we experience in other health care crises,” she said. “There’s a different concern that has to be addressed because of the history of how people with mental illness have been treated in the past.”

Prioritizing a patients’ privacy, the bill does not allow for detailed treatment information to be shared, but it does open the door to family and friends to provide context and be a part of the healing process, Parmer-Lohan said.

Since mental illness is not always evident through medical tests, psychiatrists and mental health professionals often are guided by patient narrative.

“Information that can be provided to the treating mental health care team, seems vital to the care of that individual,” Parmer-Lohan said. "I don’t know why we would try to exclude them from sharing that information, which happened in my case.”

The bill recently passed out of the Senate Health Committee and will be presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday June 18. If passed, it will go to the State Appropriations Committee, which will consider costs of implementing access to the physical handbook before it heads to the Senate floor.

Berman said he feels confident it will continue to be supported.

“It’s such a nonpartisan issue,” Berman said. “Everybody struggles with or knows somebody who struggles with mental health challenges.”