A homeless man rests outside the Santa Ana Library. Credit: Nick Gerda/Voice of OC

Last month my 37-year-old son left for Yuma Arizona where he will slowly deteriorate into chaos and rage brought on by the voices in his head.

He appeared here relatively mentally intact having, I believe, recently been involuntarily medicated. I say, I believe, because I have not seen him for two years. He has been living in the Arizona desert, as far as I know, for this period. He comes into and goes out of my life as his illness dictates.

He is a brilliant man who, even with the ravages that schizophrenia has wrought on his brain, can be charming, thoughtful, compassionate, creative and productive, as long as he maintains his medication.

This time, just like all of the other times when we had worked together to get him mentally healthy, I had hope that he would enter a program, take medication and again become a part of the world that his illness had taken from him.

The programs were there for him. The system was amazingly responsive. Within two days the opportunities were in place. But when he faced the ultimate decision point he could not make the choice to enter the program and take medication.

I watched him struggle trying to make this decision. I watched him trying to accept the fact that he was mentally ill and that, just like for a physical illness, he needed medication.

Once again, the voices won.

He became physically agitated and irrational in his thinking pattern and refused to even continue the discussion. He simply did not have the capacity, due to his illness, to make an informed choice.

He has told me many times that he wants to be productive and wants to be a part of our family. Of course that’s when he is taking his medication. When he is off his medication he can be aggressive and abusive. I have not yet seen him be violent, but I would not rule it out.

I know the core nature of my son, and I am convinced that he does not want to be that abusive, aggressive potentially violent person, but the very nature of his illness robs him of the ability to choose sanity. It tells him that he is not ill. It tells him that he is sane and that all of the rest of us are trying to manipulate him.

For those who are making the argument that his civil rights require that he be allowed to choose to be that aggressive, abusive and potentially violent man, I would say that he is not making the choice, the illness is making that choice for him. You also argue that the system cannot afford to treat people like my son. Believe me, the devastation that will come if he hurts someone after declining into the depths of his disease will make the monetary cost seem like a small price to pay.

I cannot urge strongly enough that we implement Laura’s Law, so that when my son surfaces again he will have the tools necessary to help him take advantage of the wonderful programs that make up our mental health system here in Orange County. He will have the opportunity to become the man that he really wants to be; not the man who may hurt others, not because he wants to, but because his illness demands it.

Community Editorial Board member Gene Howard has spent his entire career working in the area of child abuse and neglect. Over the past 40 years he has served as the head of child protection services for Arizona and for Orange County. Most recently he is serving as CEO of the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Orange County.

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