Sun wrong on involuntary commitment bill

The Sun's April 5 editorial ("The tricky question of involuntary commitment") misses two critical points about the bill to clarify mental health civil commitment standards in Maryland, and it misstates another.

The bill's key component — making explicit that a person whose mental illness prevents him from meeting his basic survival needs of food, clothing and shelter is "dangerous to self" within the meaning of the law — goes unmentioned. It is hard to imagine a reasonable argument why such an individual would not need hospital care. And yet many who cannot function independently go untreated under the current Maryland law, simply because they do not appear violent or suicidal.

The editorial also fails to note that the language of the bill is identical in substance to the civil commitment laws of most other states. Maryland is being asked to catch up to the pack, not to venture into uncharted waters. If the bill really "risks creating more problems than it solves," wouldn't the opponents have horror stories to report from these other states? We have heard none.

Finally, the claim that the bill "would broaden the definition of dangerousness to cases in which … a person might become dangerous [but] doesn't exhibit serious symptoms at the time he is evaluated" conflates the very different questions of dangerousness and mental illness. The bill would certainly not permit the commitment of anyone who does not demonstrate severe mental illness and a need for treatment. But it would make clear that an actively delusional or psychotic person with a history of dangerous behavior should not be released on the grounds that he made no threats against anyone during his evaluation.

The Sun grants far too much deference to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's predictable resistance to change. That is the nature of bureaucracies, even well-intentioned ones. If the House of Delegates is guided instead by the merits of the arguments put forth, it will follow the Senate's unanimous lead and give Marylanders with untreated severe mental illness a chance to recover the lives they have lost.

Brian Stettin, Arlington, Va.

The writer is policy director of the Treatment Advocacy Center.

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