NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


February 2, 2006

People with psychotic tendencies should be forced to get treatment -- even if they haven't committed violent acts, say E. Fuller Torrey, a 68-year-old maverick psychiatrist who formerly was a key adviser to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Torrey and memorabilia mogul Ted Stanley created a more aggressive organization, the Treatment Advocacy Center, to push laws requiring treatment.

It has long been common for states to compel people to undergo psychiatric evaluation after they have committed acts of violence. If mental illness is confirmed, they are likely to end up in the psychiatric ward of a prison or hospital.

  • The number of states to adopt such laws has jumped from 25 in 1998 -- when Torrey and Stanley created their organization -- to 42 currently.
  • Those targeted by the laws usually are people picked up for behaving strangely in public, threatening family members, or refusing to take prescribed medication after being released from a psychiatric ward.

But the laws have become the subject of a heated debate among mental-health specialists, with some seeing a threat to civil rights. The laws are often enforced haphazardly, sometimes because of inadequate funding or opposition from mental-health activists. Implementation varies not just from state to state, but from county to county and judge to judge.

Many mental-health departments already are overburdened with existing patients and have little interest in pushing police to round up more people to throw into the system, says the Wall Street Journal. Furthermore, it isn't clear whether the laws allowing forced treatment have led to an increase in the number of people receiving care, says the Journal.

  • Roughly 250,000 people in 1997 who weren't institutionalized or jailed were forcibly evaluated, monitored and sometimes medicated, according to federal statistics.
  • Federal health officials have begun a six-month study to update that figure.

Still, it is clear that Torrey's movement marks a shift in how the United States treats the mentally ill, says the Journal.

Source: Mark Fritz, "A Doctor's Fight: More Forced Care for the Mentally Ill," The Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2006.

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