Stetson student presents a solution to treat mental illness among the homeless

On Sept. 15, Stetson Law student Paul Sarlo presented his paper on how the State of Florida might revitalize its outpatient treatment law to care for the severely mentally ill among its homeless population while saving millions in mental healthcare expenses.

Student Paul Sarlo addresses Stetson Law students and faculty on Sept. 15.

Student Paul Sarlo addresses Stetson Law students and faculty on Sept. 15.

In 1999, a tragedy in New York turned the spotlight on the issue of untreated mental illness when a journalist named Kendra Webdale was pushed in front of an oncoming subway train by a homeless, schizophrenic man.

New York responded by enacting Kendra’s Law, an involuntary assisted outpatient treatment law that requires mentally ill individuals who are likely to commit violent acts to adhere to a prescribed medication program as a condition for living in the community. Other states, including Florida in 2004, adopted their own outpatient treatment laws. Still, mental illness among the homeless often goes untreated, and Florida has one of the largest homeless populations in the U.S., after New York and California.

Sarlo explained to students and faculty, “Jails and prisons have become our de facto mental health institutions where thousands upon thousands of our mentally ill reside today.” Of the 125,000 mentally ill arrested every year in Florida annually, many are homeless, Sarlo said.

Sarlo cited studies showing that severely mentally ill are generally re-hospitalized. He identified some ways that largely unpopular homeless ordinances might be used to provide the severely mentally ill the treatment they need before they commit violent acts.

Students and a panel of faculty experts who specialize in health law — Suzanne Elinger, Michael Finch, and Adam Levine — commented on Sarlo’s paper.

“Getting mental health care in this community is incredibly challenging,” said Dr. Levine, a recent Stetson Law graduate who practiced medicine for several years in Hillsborough County. Levine shared that when drugs make people feel better, they stop taking the drugs, and the mental illness returns.

Sarlo said that homeless ordinances might be used to bring people in for treatment and psychological evaluations that lead to outpatient treatment. The outpatient treatment model can be very successful, he said.

Sarlo’s article will be published in the upcoming edition of the Stetson Law Review, which will be available online at in the coming year.