Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Washington State: Change or No Change

“I Kill for God. I Listen to God,” 28-year old Isaac Zamora told a judge at his court hearing on Sept. 5, 2008, after being arrested for shooting and killing 6 people, and wounding 4 others in Skagit County, Wash. Zamora, suffering from severe mental illness, was kept from the treatment his family had sought, treatment that likely would have prevented this devastating event. Washington law stood in the way of the Zamora family’s ability to get Isaac the treatment he so clearly needed, and the consequences are disastrous.

The Zamoras are far from being the only Washingtonians affected by treatment laws surrounding mental illness. Liz Browning, mother of a young man suffering from schizophrenia, knows all too well the barriers in getting help for a loved one with a mental illness. Liz and her mentally ill son, Marcus, visited several mental hospitals to find help. However, Marcus and Liz were repeatedly turned away during their hospital visits, being told that Marcus was not ill enough to warrant treatment. “You almost hope they are really, really bad,” Browning told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. “And that's just so wrong.”

Dr. Peter Roy-Byrne is the chief of psychiatry at Harborview: one of the hospitals the Brownings visited on their quest for Marcus’ treatment. Dr. Roy-Byrne feels that the hospitalization of a mentally ill person has made a transformation, turning from a medically based judgment into a legal decision. "It's like if someone came into the ER with chest pain or cardiac arrhythmia, and we had to tell them, until they have a heart attack or need a heart transplant, we can't do anything," the doctor said of the state’s restrictive mental illness treatment standards.

Hopefully, the obstacles to accessing treatment that plagued the Brownings and the Zamoras are not set in stone. Due to the magnitude of the situation, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered a review of Zamora’s case overseen by the head of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, as well as a prosecutor from the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys. The anxiously awaited report is due next week. Hopefully, it will include the changes needed that will save lives.