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Seriously mentally ill people can't wait another year for lawmakers to change the standard for involuntary commitments

Regarding your recent editorial on making it easier for families to commit a mentally ill relative to a mental institution against their will, Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and some state delegates apparently are missing the urgent need to clarify the state's civil commitment standards ("The tricky question of involuntary commitment," April 6).

Many relatives of individuals with serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, recently testified about the consequences of the denying timely treatment under the current law. Those consequences include homicide, suicide, homelessness, job loss and permanent brain damage. The Maryland Senate understood this and passed SB 1040 unanimously.

The editorial showed a misunderstanding of severe mental illness with psychosis. It is an illness characterized by confused and irrational thoughts, incoherent speech and delusions that rob individuals of their ability to function in the world.

For those who are unable to recognize that they very ill, involuntary hospitalization and treatment can be the only way to restore rational thought and their ability to exercise their civil liberties.

The DHMH arguments are contradictory and misleading. It is the current law, which does not define the concept of "dangerousness" to self or others, that is vague and lacking in clear guidelines. The families' testimony showed that it is interpreted very differently by police, ER physicians and judges across the state.

The proposed language retains the current commitment criteria that treatment be in the least restrictive setting, as well as protection of a patient's civil liberties by a public defender and judicial review. This prevents the commitment of those that do not need hospitalization.

The Sun editorial states that the proposed legislation has the "risk of creating more problems than it solves." Given that 46 other states have substantially similar language, more consideration should be given to the certainty that the current law will result this year in more needless deaths, incarcerations, and homelessness.

It is easy for to say the problem can be solved next year. Some of the families who testified — like the one whose son is very ill, homeless and tried to hire a contract killer — fear their relative may not be around next year when they testify.

DHMH needs to work closely with the supporters of SB 1040 to ensure that yet another year of needless tragedies does not occur.

Arlene Saks-Martin, Randallstown

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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