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It was a thrill to attend the NAMI Illinois awards dinner on Saturday, October 6th, in Springfield. The celebration was in full swing over the passing of SB234, legislation “so greatly appreciated by family members who previously had no hope for getting loved ones into treatment,” said Lora Thomas, executive director, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Illinois.

After years of frustration in Springfield over failures to pass the measure, Thomas said, “lawmakers realized the common sense behind this bill—allowing family members to intervene and start the recovery process before hitting rock bottom.”

Imagine the anguish families have been powerlessly suffering; watching a loved one with mental illness repeat a too-commonly-recognized pattern of spiraling to the depths of destruction, unable to intervene until he/she hits the legal definition of rock bottom by “becoming a threat to himself or others.” In other words, waiting until the loved one says he/she will kill him/herself or someone else, or actually attempts it. By then, it’s often too late. The new law empowers caregivers to act sooner rather than later.

For years, Karen Gherardini of southern Illinois has worked with Senators Frank Watson and Dale Righter, sponsors of SB234, a package of mental health bills, to bring awareness, education and a solution to the problem. Her relative with paranoid schizophrenia was functioning well when on medication. However, Gherardini became frantic when she learned the relative had deteriorated and needed hospitalization. The person had purchased and was carrying a gun.

The crisis was averted, but it energized Gherardini to become an advocate for resolving a widespread problem understood so little by emergency rooms, doctors, states’ attorneys and law enforcement personnel who each react to conflicting, confusing perceptions of the legal regulations applicable to their piece of the crisis.

“Thank God for SB234,” Gherardini said. “Now we need to get the rules right and educate, educate, educate everyone involved.” This year was different, she said. In the Senate committee, members recounted their experiences with loved ones and voiced support.

Likewise, as House sponsor, when I presented the bill, the atmosphere in the Judiciary Committee was electrifying, the most emotional response in my 20 years. With powerful testimony from the Mayfield family and other state and local NAMI members, it was the unexpected passionate advocacy of Committee Chairman John Fritchey which broke the back of opponents; Rep. Fritchey chastised them for being more concerned with “legalisms than families.” Fritchey described the horrors of helplessly watching a best friend deteriorate from happy and normal to suicidal.

Later, on the House floor, Rep. Pat Lindner, a co-sponsor, expressed her joy. In 1996, the son of her constituent, Norma Piazza, shot his father and brother. When he emerged from a catatonic state, he had no memory of the incident. She had been desperately trying to get the son hospitalized again since his symptoms were an obvious pattern to her, but she was powerless to intervene.

While SB234 is a significant step, Illinois has miles to go. We must transform an archaic, expensive and ineffective blur of fragments into a system which works for people. IBI

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