Guest Blog: Mental Illness and the Law
Written by Robert Gerard
The specific issue in the Virginia Tech shooting has to do with the criteria for having someone like Cho Seung-Hui hospitalized involuntarily. Ask any mental health professional about the criteria for involuntary hospitalization. It’s a joke! To be hospitalized involuntarily, the person must demonstrate behavior that demonstrates “immediate danger to self or others.” In our current zealous pursuit of civil rights, this means that the troubled person must be in the process of cutting her wrist or putting a noose around her head or explicitly threatening someone. “Ideation” (the psycho-babble label for expressing thoughts or ideas about harming self or others) doesn’t qualify.
Does anyone remember New York Mayor Koch’s heroic attempts to find shelters for homeless people during the bitter winter of 1987? In the wake of sub-zero temperatures, the Mayor insisted that the homeless, who were curled up on city streets, be taken to shelters for their own safety. One mentally ill person refused assistance, and the Mayor received a firestorm of criticism from civil rights advocates who rushed to protect those who had no insight into the danger they faced.
While video cameras, campus police, and other sources of security are important, the solution to avoiding another tragedy like the one at Virginia Tech lies in promoting and passing legislation that broadens the criteria for involuntary hospitalization of mentally ill persons who demonstrate a “potential” danger to self or to other members of the community.
Just think about what might not have happened if Professor Lucinda Roy’s appeal for intervention for Cho had been supported by the law and the mental health system.
Robert Gerard is a Professor Emeritus at Mount Saint Mary’s University in Emmitsburg Maryland, and has worked as a volunteer in a community mental health center. He is a member of the National Alliance for the mentally Ill (NAMI) and the parent of a child who is mentally ill.
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