Kristen Otoupalik of Spokane said if her friend Christopher Henderson‘s suicide threat history could have been recorded by mental health professionals and police, courts might have been able to force him into getting help before he fatally shot his wife, Sheena Henderson, and himself last year.
“How much would you pay, how many papers would you write and how much time would you invest to save the life of your loved one,” Otoupalik said. “Better yet, how many of you would like to trade places with me, and lose your loved ones because there wasn’t a strong enough paper trail, or we were not able to make changes, no matter how minimal, in our state?”
Kristen Otoupalik (left), Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, and Gary Kennison drop Sheena's Law, named after Kennison's daughter. Photo courtesy Rep. Riccelli's office.
Otoupalik spoke at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, which reviewed four mental health bills which would add new standards to commit someone into mental health treatment and give the court alternatives to long-term hospitalization.
Otoupalik and Sheena Henderson’s father, Gary Kennison, both spoke in favor of House Bill 1448, Sheena’a Law, which Kennison requested to be renamed Sheena and Chris Henderson’s Law. The bill would allow officers responding to a threat of suicide to refer the person to a designated mental health professional. That mental health professional can determine whether the person needs more intensive intervention, including involuntary commitment.
Christopher Henderson had been taken to a hospital after a suicide threat, but the family was left with few options when he was released to them after three hours, Kennison said.
“There was no follow up to see if any care was given,” Kennison said. “Not one person called to see if they could help him get mental health (treatment).”
However, James McMahan, policy director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said the bill would force people into the mental health system in cases where police determine that the person is not a danger.
“We don’t think that the right solution is to put the lowest risk people in an already bogged down system,” McMahan said.
However, the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs testified in favor of the bill.
Other bills reviewed were:
- HB 1287 – Allows the courts to order year-long outpatient mental health treatment as an alternative to inpatient commitment.
- HB 1450 – Allows a person who meets the definition of ”in need of assisted outpatient treatment” to be ordered into involuntary mental health treatment.
- HB 1451 - Adds “persistent or acute disability” as one of the standards that would allow for court-ordered involuntary mental health treatment.
Len McComb, lobbyist of the Washington State Hospital Association, warned that the state needs to back up any changes with funding to keep services and beds available.
“We don’t have a mental health system in this state. We have pieces of a mental health system that is broken,” he said, testifying on HB 1451. “Be careful what you wish for.”
“Simply changing the standards and changing the law and not changing the system will not change things a bit,” he said.