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Michaud: Undeterred in working to improve treatment for mental illness

Remember the righteous calls for action coming from

Remember the righteous calls for action coming from federal officials after the Newtown, Conn., shootings? Who could forget? Apparently, Washington. Credit: iStock

Remember the righteous calls for action coming from federal officials after the Newtown, Conn., shootings? That horror in which six adults and 20 first-graders lost their lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Who could forget?

Apparently, Washington.

During these two months that Congress has been in session, no significant money, emergency training or legal safeguards have been approved for the mental health system -- at least not that the federal government will supply.

There's hope, however, because we live in a country where average people -- make that, extraordinary people -- are acting to help families and therapists who might be able to predict delusional violence but too often can't prevent it.

Here's a rundown of disappointments from our nation's capital.

--When the president's gun-control bill failed in April, so did an amendment to teach "mental health first aid" to emergency workers, teachers and others who interact with people struggling with mental illness.

--Although President Barack Obama launched the first White House Conference on Mental Health on June 3, to begin a national dialogue about mental illness, associated funding proposals are on hold because of the federal budget sequestration.

--The Affordable Care Act will require new health plans to cover mental illness as they do physical illness, because of the federal Mental Health Parity Act of 2008. But nobody knows how to enforce that law, because in the five years since it was passed, the Obama administration still hasn't written the rules.

"There's been a lot of talk, but no action and no money. Everybody's forgotten about" the promises, says Carolyn Reinach Wolf, a lawyer with offices in Lake Success and Manhattan who has developed what may be the country's only mental health law practice.

Over two decades, Wolf has represented families in crisis navigating hospitals, insurance companies, courts and social services. Gaining a stable life, for seriously mentally ill people, can take many years and temporary failures. Living through this with her clients, Wolf has witnessed where the law makes the battle more agonizing and protracted.

She's one of the extraordinary people working on two changes to federal law. The first would modify confidentiality so that families, if they meet certain criteria of involvement and support, can receive confirmation that their loved one is in treatment, and can discuss medications and the treatment plan -- instead of hitting the silent wall of therapist-patient confidentiality.

Second, Wolf wants to alter the standard for involuntary commitment. Right now, the only reliable way for a person in trouble to get help is if he or she threatens suicide or to harm someone else. Wolf would reduce the bar to include those who could benefit from inpatient care and treatment -- for example, because they have in the past.

Wolf's ideas will rankle civil libertarians, but her long bouts with the mental health system add weight to her words.

Some other extraordinary people are "The Blinking Cowboys," three young men profiled in Newsday earlier this month and so named for their flashy green outfits. Brothers Matthew and Christopher Prisco, and their friend Brian Gallagher, will travel to 50 states this summer. In 2009, Matthew and Christopher's mother, Kathleen Prisco of Fort Salonga, was charged with stabbing their father to death and was found not guilty by reason of mental disease and defect.

You can follow the cowboys' summer travels on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, as they seek to refocus the notoriety about their father's death to assist other tortured families. They want to raise public awareness and encourage others to seek help.

Maybe they can show Washington what it means to turn tragedy into positive action.

Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.