The adult life of Amelia Kay Looking Sabinsky, was a long, drawn-out train wreck that may have been prevented with stronger mental health systems.

Nowhere to Turn: Our Mental Health System Is Sick

Mary Annette Pember

“All we have for our daughter’s mental health rights is a bag of her ashes,” said Maurie Redfeather-Looking of Sacramento, California.

The adult life of her daughter, Amelia Kay Looking Sabinsky, was a long, drawn-out train wreck. Admitted to the hospital in late July, Ami was in full liver, kidney and pancreas failure. She was comatose and never fully regained consciousness. Ami died on August 19, 2014. She was 36.

Although the coroner’s report lists multiple organ failure as a cause of death, the reality goes far deeper, back into her childhood and perhaps even back into the generations of her ancestors. She found herself adrift from family, friends, her tribe and finally her own mind. Her story speaks volumes about the modern ills plaguing urban and rural Indians, including mental illness, addiction and the many obstacles to finding one’s way in the 21st century.

If new laws allowing for involuntary treatment of the most severely mentally ill had been fully implemented and funded in California, Ami might still be alive today. Instead, she died young, eaten alive by the voices in her head. The voices showed no mercy, driving her into crime, addiction and an utter disregard for her own safety that finally led to her death.

The Redfeather-Looking family knows all too well about the struggle to find care for a mentally ill loved one. Getting help for their daughter from the mental health establishment and court system was daunting. Petitioning the court for involuntary commitment, even for someone as ill as Ami, proved to be an impossible goal.

The family must now go on. For Ami’s mother, that means telling her precious daughter’s story in hopes that laws will change to help the desperately mentally ill get the treatment they need.

Dying in the Streets

Although California is once again leading the nation in crafting laws governing the rights of the mentally ill, the changes were too little and too late for Ami.

In an effort to reduce the number of lifelong involuntary commitments to state mental hospitals, California enacted the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act (LPS), in 1967. Although seen at the time as a progressive recognition of patients’ rights, many complain the law has left the most seriously ill to fend for themselves. The Act became a national model: state mental hospitals essentially became obsolete and thousands of mentally ill people were released to communities wholly unprepared to provide services for them.

According to a story in the L.A. Times, the fallout from the LPS Act continues with tens of thousands of mentally ill people winding up each year in California jails and prisons, cycling in and out of overburdened hospital emergency rooms or dying on the streets.

A report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) notes that 30 percent of chronically homeless persons have a severe mental illness, and 50 percent have chronic substance abuse issues.

Yielding to pressure from mental health advocates and families of the severely mentally ill, the state enacted “Laura’s Law” in 2002. Named after a mental health clinic employee, Laura Wilcox, 19, who was shot by a mentally ill man, the statute allows families and some law enforcement and medical professionals to petition the court to have severely mentally ill patients involuntarily treated. The petitioners must satisfy a very strict criteria, including evidence that the person is a danger to self or community.

Learn more about Laura’s Law and its controversial status in California.


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