Shrink Rap News

Forced hospitalization for mental illness not a permanent solution


I met Eleanor when I was writing a book on involuntary psychiatric treatment. She was very ill when she presented to an emergency department in Northern California. She was looking for help and would have signed herself in, but after waiting 8 hours with no food or medical attention, she walked out and went to another hospital.

At this point, she was agitated and distressed and began screaming uncontrollably. The physician in the second ED did not offer her the option of signing in, and she was placed on a 72-hour hold and subsequently held in the hospital for 3 weeks after a judge committed her.

Like so many issues, involuntary psychiatric care is highly polarized. Some groups favor legislation to make involuntary treatment easier, while patient advocacy and civil rights groups vehemently oppose such legislation.

Dr. Miller is coauthor of “Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care” (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016), and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

Dr. Dinah Miller

We don’t hear from these combatants as much as we hear from those who trumpet their views on abortion or gun control, yet this battlefield exists. It is not surprising that when New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to hospitalize homeless people with mental illnesses – involuntarily if necessary, and at the discretion of the police – people were outraged.

New York City is not the only place using this strategy to address the problem of mental illness and homelessness; California has enacted similar legislation, and every major city has homeless citizens.

Eleanor was not homeless, and fortunately, she recovered and returned to her family. However, she remained distressed and traumatized by her hospitalization for years. “It sticks with you,” she told me. “I would rather die than go in again.”

I wish I could tell you that Eleanor is unique in saying that she would rather die than go to a hospital unit for treatment, but it is not an uncommon sentiment for patients. Some people who are charged with crimes and end up in the judicial system will opt to go to jail rather than to a psychiatric hospital. It is also not easy to access outpatient psychiatric treatment.

Barriers to care

Many psychiatrists don’t participate with insurance networks, and publicly funded clinics may have long waiting lists, so illnesses escalate until there is a crisis and hospitalization is necessary. For many, stigma and fear of potential professional repercussions are significant barriers to care.

What are the issues that legislation attempts to address? The first is the standard for hospitalizing individuals against their will. In some states, the patient must be dangerous, while in others there is a lower standard of “gravely disabled,” and finally there are those that promote a standard of a “need for treatment.”

The second is related to medicating people against their will, a process that can be rightly perceived as an assault if the patient refuses to take oral medications and must be held down for injections. Next, the use of outpatient civil commitment – legally requiring people to get treatment if they are not in the hospital – has been increasingly invoked as a way to prevent mass murders and random violence against strangers.

All but four states have some legislation for outpatient commitment, euphemistically called Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), yet these laws are difficult to enforce and expensive to enact. They are also not fully effective.

In New York City, Kendra’s Law has not eliminated subway violence by people with psychiatric disturbances, and the shooter who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech in 2007 had previously been ordered by a judge to go to outpatient treatment, but he simply never showed up for his appointment.

Finally, the battle includes the right of patients to refuse to have their psychiatric information released to their caretakers under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 – a measure that many families believe would help them to get loved ones to take medications and go to appointments.

The concern about how to negotiate the needs of society and the civil rights of people with psychiatric disorders has been with us for centuries. There is a strong antipsychiatry movement that asserts that psychotropic medications are ineffective or harmful and refers to patients as “psychiatric survivors.” We value the right to medical autonomy, and when there is controversy over the validity of a treatment, there is even more controversy over forcing it upon people.

Psychiatric medications are very effective and benefit many people, but they don’t help everyone, and some people experience side effects. Also, we can’t deny that involuntary care can go wrong; the conservatorship of Britney Spears for 13 years is a very public example.


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