NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

States Allow Involuntary Treatment of the Mentally Ill

January 19, 2000

Should the government have the power to force the mentally ill into treatment against their will? Or does doing so violate the individual rights of those suffering from mental illness? This philosophical debate is the subject of the cover story in this month's ABA Journal.

  • According to the Journal, less than 50 percent -- and perhaps as few as 20 percent -- of the mentally ill receive treatment for their illness.
  • According to the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va., people with mental disorders commit 1,000 homicides per year -- roughly 5 percent of the nation's total.
  • Since the late 1980s, in response to fears of the mentally ill, 41 states have passed outpatient commitment laws, which permit courts to force mentally disordered individuals into outpatient treatment.

Critics of these laws say that forced treatment unfairly categorizes all those with mental disorders as potentially dangerous, and drives distrustful patients away from the mental health system. They also argue that supporters of forced treatment tend to inflate the threat of violence from the mentally disordered and, as a result, obscure important legal issues, such as whether the Americans With Disabilities Act is being applied to those who are mentally ill.

The ABA Journal reports that lawyers for the Bazelon Center, an organization supportive of the individual rights of the mentally ill, have chosen a New York outpatient commitment law as a possible target for a legal challenge -- which would be the first challenge of its kind.

Source: News Release, "ABA Journal Examines Mental Health Law," American Bar Association, January 14, 2000.


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