By Aisha Huertas Michel, Associate Director of Public Policy and Communications
It’s often the case that tragedy mobilizes communities to action. But, in the face of the crisis involving Virginia’s Mental Health System, tragedy has led to well-intentioned yet flawed, constitutionally suspect, and counterproductive proposals. Yes, something needs to be done to ensure that people with psychiatric disabilities receive appropriate care and that their families and communities are not left alone to handle situations that can only be addressed by mental health professionals. In our drive to find solutions, however, we must remain focused on the facts and what is effective. Science, not fear or frustration, must guide any discourse surrounding policy change.
To that end, last week we submitted public comment to the Joint Commission on Health Care regarding two bills it’s reviewing that would limit the rights of minors to make their own decisions about their medical care and create a fast track to involuntary commitment. Our concern? Mature minors should be able to make their own decisions regarding treatment, unless, because of mental illness, the minor presents a serious danger to himself or others that cannot be addressed by a less restrictive and voluntary form of treatment or the minor isn’t legally competent (by reason of intellect or maturity) to make his or her own decisions.
Over the past year, the state of Virginia’s mental health system has undergone intense and appropriate scrutiny. Nonetheless, many of the proposed solutions have focused on symptoms, not the disease, or elevated process over treatment, in part because of cost. The reality is that there is no simple, quick fix – the holes in our mental health safety net cannot be repaired by adjusting times or making it easier to deprive people of their liberty. We have a services issue –Virginia has failed to adequately fund and provide the community-based mental health services necessary across all regions of the Commonwealth.
If we do not focus on and adequately fund early, effective intervention, then we miss the mark. Involuntary civil commitment and other forms of custody, for any age group, should be utilized only when essential to protecting the person or others from serious danger. Psychiatric disability alone is not a justifiable reason for depriving a person of liberty against his or her objection regardless of his or her age.
We must all work together to ensure the Commonwealth takes effective steps to get individuals and families the services they need and does so in a manner that values and protects the constitutional rights of every person, minor or adult.