Shining a light on involuntary commitment of the mentally ill

11:32 PM, Feb 28, 2013   |    comments
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By Art Holliday

ST. LOUIS (KSDK) - Involuntary commitment of someone who is mentally ill is one of society's most complex issues: the civil rights of the patient vs. the right of society to be safe.

Judith wants the rest of us to know what a struggle it is to find help for her adult son who is mentally ill. Motivated by the Connecticut school shootings, she's speaking about her family's challenge because she wants the nation to start focusing on early intervention to make it easier to treat the mentally ill before their illness deteriorates and leads to a violent act. She asked us not to use her family's last name

"People don't want to talk about it," said Judith. "Friends shun you because they don't understand it. The symptoms are so bizarre it freaks people out."

Judith is referring to her son Duncan's paranoid schizophrenia. In the mid-1990s Judith noticed dramatic changes in his behavior. He seemed to be hearing voices and talking to people who weren't there.

"As his symptoms became worse, where he was doing unusual things like putting balloons in the toilet," she said.

Duncan has been hospitalized several times for his mental illness. Judith worried because her son enjoyed hunting and owned as many as a dozen guns. Judith understood that the intersection of guns and mental illness is the reddest of red flags.

"It's death looking you in the face."

"On June 2 of last year police arrested Duncan for pointing a loaded 12 gauge shot gun at his brother and threatening to kill him, a felony. Judith says she's lucky her son's face didn't wind up on TV newscasts for shooting his brother.

"At least no one did get killed," said Judith. "It could have happened, as we've seen on the news.

Before the arrest, Judith says she tried unsuccessfully to involuntarily hospitalize her son, fearing he might become violent. Families across the country have found that civil commitment laws make it incredibly difficult, sometimes impossible to hospitalize an adult against their will. That's because of the conflict between the civil rights of the person who's ill and right of society to be safe from the small percentage of the mentally ill who become violent when their illness goes untreated.

"You have a right to be mentally ill. That is not against the law," said Patrick Connaghan, probate commissioner for the 22nd Judicial Circuit. Connagham supervises civil commitment proceedings for the mentally ill.

"The question is, because of your mental illness are you now dangerous and that's what we have to determine," he said.

Connagham says there's not enough funding for preventive mental health services or follow-up supervision for people with mental illness.

"Who's out there to supervise these folks? It's one thing to get them in the hospital for 21 days and get them back on the medication and get them stabilized," said Connagham, "but what happens to them when they go back out on the street?"

Psychologist Dr. Bart Andrews agrees.

"If we spent more money on preventive services, outpatient services, diversions, on-going treatment services, we wouldn't have to spend so much money on prisons and corrections," said Andrews.

"It's impossible to get treatment for these psychotic patients who don't have insurance because of the lack of state funding," said Judith.

Currently Judith's son is incompetent to stand trial for brandishing a shotgun. He's incarcerated at metropolitan psychiatric hospital where he receives treatment for his mental illness. Judith says he had to commit a crime to get the help he needs.

"Yes, that's what I'm trying to say. It had to come to a life and death situation before he could be restrained."


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