Dr. Joel Braslow and Philippe Bourgois of the Center for Social Medicine and the Humanities at UCLA’s Semel Institute have won a three-year, $1 million grant from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health to study how the county deploys urgent psychiatric care and social services to seriously mentally ill people.

The county’s program, called Assisted Outpatient Treatment, is part of the rollout of Laura’s Law, approved by the California Legislature in 2002, but only recently funded. Laura’s Law is named after Laura Wilcox, a 19-year-old volunteer at a Nevada County mental health clinic who was shot to death in January 2001 by a mentally ill man who refused medical treatment.

The Los Angeles County program brings treatment to mentally ill individuals who are at risk of becoming a danger to themselves or to others because of poor compliance with psychiatric treatment. Outreach workers try to persuade patients, many of them homeless, to accept psychiatric care; if they refuse treatment, the program can seek court-ordered treatment.

Braslow and Bourgois will follow outreach workers as they approach clients on the streets, in emergency rooms, courtrooms and jails. Braslow, who holds the Frances M. O’Malley Endowed Chair in Neuroscience History, wants to find out whether assisted outpatient treatment improves outcomes. Does it keep individuals out of jail and off the streets? Does it decrease hospitalizations? Will clients function better?

“Given how many severely mentally ill individuals there are in L.A., it’s a small start,” said Braslow, lead investigator of the UCLA study. “This is at least a beginning to address a huge number of individuals not getting psychiatric care.”

Bourgois, director of the Center for Social Medicine and the Humanities, will gather feedback about the program from patients, family members, clinical service providers, neighbors and law enforcement officers. As an ethnographer, Bourgois writes scientific descriptions of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.