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Forced Mental Health Treatment Has a Place

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Updated February 24, 2004

Updated February 24, 2004
The New York Court of Appeals has upheld the state law allowing concerned family and friends to seek a court order forcing a patient to accept mental health treatment. In New York this law has been referred to as "Kendra's Law." The New York law was named "for Kendra Webdale, a young woman who died in January, 1999 after being pushed in front of a New York City subway train by a person who failed to take the medication prescribed for his mental illness." (Quote from Kendra's Law page at New York's Office of Mental Health)

Lawyers for an unnamed mental patient had argued that the law was unconstitutional because it violated their patients' due process protections. Their position is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. The court unanimously disagreed; holding that the law enabled mentally ill persons to lead more productive and satisfying lives while also reducing the risk of violence.

The New York law allows the following persons to petition the court to have someone evaluated for possible "assisted outpatient treatment":

  • an adult (18 years or older) roommate of the person
  • a parent, spouse, adult child or adult sibling of the person
  • the director of a hospital where the person is hospitalized
  • the director of a public or charitable organization, agency or home that provides mental health services and in whose institution the person resides
  • a qualified psychiatrist who is either treating the person or supervising the treatment of the person for mental illness
  • the director of community services, or social services official of the city or county where the person is present or is reasonably believed to be present
  • a parole officer or probation officer assigned to supervise the person. (from Kendra's Law page)

Severe mental illnesses can affect a person's judgment. People sometimes stop taking the very medications that allow them to function safely in society. People who are judged to be a danger to themselves or others can almost always be forced to get treatment in the United States. The procedures vary from state-to-state. New York spells out clearly the guidelines for their program, and patients' rights are protected in several ways. A court may not issue an assisted outpatient treatment order, for example, unless it finds that this form of treatment is the least restrictive alternative available for the patient.

If you are concerned that someone with a severe mental illness may be a danger to him or herself or someone else contact your local community mental health center or your state mental health agency. The process that you will go through may be different from New York's process, but there is almost always a way to help someone with a severe mental illness get the help that they need.

Is it enough to force a person to take medications? What if the person has tried to get treatment in the past but has been unable to? Perhaps these laws should not only force the patient to get treatment, but also force the states to provide treatment. That's one of the points that Harold A. Maio makes in his commentary on Kendra's law.

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