The title of a recent John Stossel column in the Northwest Florida Daily News was "Take Care of Those Who Are Seriously Mentally Ill." (SMIs.) Why should you and your neighbor want to take care of the seriously mentally ill, those with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? Unless our treatment of SMIs improves, there will be more slaughter of innocent school children and more violence in our theaters, other places of recreation and on our streets.

The newspaper op/ed piece I read says: "... we need ... more ... [psychiatric] hospitals, [we need] easier civil commitment ... we need to keep them [SMIs] on their medications so they don't deteriorate." That's according to D.J. Jaffe, executive director of the Mental Illness Policy Organization and author of Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill.

Let's admit right here that the mental health industry is a product of our values, our policies and our laws. We fail by expecting community mental health facilities to keep SMI indigents off the streets and crime-free. Current laws and lack of funding force mental health clinics and hospitals to simply "treat 'em and street 'em." Psychiatric hospitals should house patients, if need-be forever. SMIs overpopulate our jails to the breaking point, jails which are not equipped to deal with the mentally ill. Those inmates represent a million crimes that could have been prevented with adequate mental health treatment or hospitalization.

Failure to "keep them on medications" produces the most chaotic consequences but our current laws make if virtually impossible to achieve. The civil rights of the SMI individual supersede the welfare and safety of the SMI and the public.

In my career as a psychiatric social worker, I saw these failures first hand. A case in point follows:

A man who was more than 6 feet tall and carried more than 200 pounds of bone and muscle suffered from bipolar disorder. He had an extensive history of arrest and incarceration for property destruction as well as assault and injury to people when in his manic phase. The only medication that controlled his violent behavior was lithium. When he neared his 50s, his kidneys began to fail because of the massively high doses of the medication he required. He had a choice: remain on lithium and suffer kidney failure or go off his medications and become psychotic and violent, ending up in jail or a mental hospital. Do you think he had the right to make that decision for himself? Or would you have liked to make it for him?

As responsible Florida citizens, we need to assist SMIs in getting the treatment they need before they resort to violence or become the victims of crimes. We should have the resource to request a psychiatric evaluation of anyone who is clearly a danger to self or others whether or not they consent to it. In Florida, only a court, a law enforcement officer, or a mental health professional may initiate such an examination. Other states empower all its citizens to request such a psychiatric exam by filling out a simple form. Are we in Florida less caring or less wise? Until our legislators choose compassion and wisdom over ignorance--until they acknowledge the suffering all around them of the SMIs and their loved ones and enact new, humane laws, the "insane consequences" will continue.

Sharon Sterling is a resident of Freeport.