Wednesday, September 06, 2006

No other choice

Dr. Wayne Fenton’s death is a poignant reminder of the woeful inadequacy of options for emergency care when severely mentally ill patient are in crisis and refusing medication. Families struggle with a mental health system that claims nothing can be done until the patient is dangerous.

One of the most tragic aspects of Dr. Fenton’s death is that he was an exception in a mental health system that is geared almost exclusively to patients who are able to seek treatment voluntarily. Like the difficult patients he tried to help, he was a victim of the system that turns a blind eye to patients who lack the insight into their need for treatment.

Dr. Fenton never should have been in the vulnerable position of trying to help his patient alone, but he was in that position precisely because he was a compassionate professional who understood too well the alternatives for the young man he wanted to help. Most of his colleagues would have referred the family to the police, who also have few options in Maryland and Virginia until the patient becomes dangerous.

Perhaps this tragedy will prompt Dr. Fenton’s colleagues to refocus the mental health system on the patients most in need – those Dr. Fenton refused to neglect.

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