Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Why Was He Released? Part 3

I mentioned yesterday
my dismay that Hamilton, in spite of a suicide attempt, previous convictions for domestic violence, and a statement that his next suicide attempt would involve killing lots of other people--was not committed.

I've been talking to a counselor in Moscow who, like many other mental health professionals here in Idaho, thinks the current law makes it too difficult to lock up the dangerously mentally ill. To my surprise, when I went to examine Idaho law on this, it doesn't seem to be the problem. From Idaho Code 66-322:
(c) Any such petition shall be accompanied by a certificate of a licensed physician or licensed clinical psychologist stating that the physician or
psychologist has personally examined the proposed patient within the last fourteen (14) days and is of the opinion: (i) that the proposed patient is mentally ill, (ii) that in the absence of treatment the immediate prognosis is for major distress of the proposed patient which will result in serious mental or physical deterioration of the proposed patient, (iii) that treatment is available which is likely to avoid serious mental or physical deterioration of the proposed patient, and (iv) that the proposed patient lacks capacity to make informed decisions about treatment; or by a written statement by the physician or psychologist that the proposed patient has refused to submit to an examination.

(d) Upon receipt of a petition, the court shall within forty-eight (48) hours appoint another licensed physician or licensed clinical psychologist to make a personal examination of the proposed patient, or if the proposed patient has not been examined, the court shall appoint two (2) licensed physicians or licensed clinical psychologists to make individual personal examinations of the proposed patient and may order the proposed patient to submit to an immediate examination. Within seventy-two (72) hours, the physician or psychologist shall file with the court certificates described in subparagraph (c) above, if necessary.
You might want to argue about what constitutes "serious mental or physical deterioration," but when someone says that their next suicide attempt will involve killing lots of people--I think that qualifies, don't you?

I am wondering if the problem here might not be the statute, but an unwillingness of judges to use the authority granted under this statute. I had occasion to talk to a couple of psychiatrists who worked for Sonoma County's mental health department some years ago, and they told me that the problem they confronted was that too many California judges thought One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a documentary, and were reluctant to commit anyone, no matter how severely mentally ill they were.

I don't have enough information to suggest a particular course of action on this, but it does seem as though the Idaho Legislature should examine whether judges are using their authority to commit, and if so, what needs to be done. Hamilton is one example where it seems that someone didn't commit a person who was clearly dangerous; I've mentioned a co-worker whose wife has attempted to kill him twice, and is now about to be released after six months in a mental hospital. Maybe these two cases are really unusual, and Idaho judges are committing mentally ill people as the law allows them to do so. But I would like the legislature to look at this question seriously, and find out how widespread this failure to commit might be.

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