FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Zena Naiditch, President and CEO,
Equip for Equality
Murray Manus, Legislative Policy Manager,
Equip for Equality
(312) 341-0022, (800) 537-2632, TTY (800) 610-2779
Equip for Equality Opposes Lowering of Involuntary Commitment Standard Under Illinois Mental Health Code as Proposed in General Assembly
As the Governor designated, federally mandated Protection and Advocacy System for Illinois, Equip for Equality's mission is to advance the human and civil rights of people with mental and physical disabilities. As such, we are greatly distressed when people with mental illness end up in tragic situations that bring harm to themselves or others.
But we strongly oppose bills that have been introduced in the General Assembly to remedy this situation by lowering the involuntary commitment standard in the Illinois Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities Code. This would make it easier to force people into psychiatric hospitals against their will and could violate their constitutional rights. Lowering the commitment standard is a drastic step that will result in a substantial loss of liberty for many people with mental illness.
We believe that the current legal standard strikes an appropriate balance between the rights of the individual with mental illness and the interests of society. The law states that an individual with mental illness can be committed to a psychiatric hospital:
- when the person is reasonably expected to seriously harm inflict self-harm or to harm others in the near future, or
- when that individual is unable to provide for his or her basic physical needs and thus is unable to protect his or her person from serious harm.
There is a widespread misunderstanding that people can be involuntarily committed only if dangerous to themselves or others. As a result, cases are not being brought nor are commitment petitions being granted under the second prong of the commitment standard. It makes no sense to lower the commitment standard when the current law is not being enforced.
The consequences of involuntary commitment can be pernicious, not the least of which are the stigma imposed by society, employment discrimination and fear of seeking psychiatric treatment. There is also the pragmatic concern of placing an increased burden on a state mental health system that is experiencing severe shortages of direct care staff because of recent budget cutbacks.
Placing a substantial number of people with mental illness into the state hospitals without dramatically increasing funding will either result in reducing the quality of patient care within a more dangerous environment or in discharging voluntary patients whose treatment needs are just as compelling as the newly committed individuals.
A better alternative to changing the commitment standard is to educate people about the current law. This is the approach taken by Senate Bill 200, introduced by Senate Minority Leader Frank Watson, which requires the Illinois Department of Human Services to annually provide training for attorneys, judges, law enforcement personnel, mental health professionals, and other individuals involved in the mental health system about the standards for civil commitment and other aspects of our mental health laws.
This misplaced focus on the legal criteria for involuntary commitment diverts our attention from the real problems with the mental health system in Illinois. The General Assembly has never adequately funded that system and as a result people with serious mental illness who voluntarily seek treatment cannot access mental health services. There is a lack of community based programs to help people with mental illness function successfully in society, including inadequate support services for adults and juveniles, a severe shortage of affordable housing, and restricted access to newer medications.
The state has some very effective programs to treat people with mental illness in the community. One example is assertive community treatment (ACT), which has successfully used a team approach to provide mental health services to people with serious mental illness who have been treatment resistant. But ACT is not generally available to people who need it because of insufficient state funding.
There are other alternatives for helping people get mental health treatment without eroding their civil rights. Equip for Equality has long advocated for a statewide emergency psychiatric intervention system whereby an individual in psychiatric crisis could get support to help that person seek voluntarily treatment. Another option is utilizing advance directives where an individual pre-determines the types of mental health treatment that are acceptable and can appoint someone to make those decisions in the event of illness or loss of mental capacity.
Changing the current, non-enforced law to permit more people with mental illness to be hospitalized involuntarily will create more problems than it solves. Preventable tragedies will continue to occur until the General Assembly provides sufficient financial support to make meaningful changes in our mental health system that will benefit people with mental illness in this state.