Involuntary commitment, civil commitment, or involuntary hospitalisation (also known informally as sectioning or being sectioned in some jurisdictions, such as the UK) is a legal process through which an individual who is deemed by a qualified agent to have symptoms of severe mental disorder is detained in a psychiatric hospital (inpatient) where they can be treated involuntarily. This treatment may involve the administration of psychoactive drugs, including involuntary administration. In many jurisdictions, people diagnosed with mental health disorders can also be forced to undergo treatment while in the community; this is sometimes referred to as outpatient commitment and shares legal processes with commitment.
Refer to Voluntary Commitment.
Criteria for civil commitment are established by laws which vary between nations. Commitment proceedings often follow a period of emergency hospitalisation, during which an individual with acute psychiatric symptoms is confined for a relatively short duration (e.g. 72 hours) in a treatment facility for evaluation and stabilisation by mental health professionals who may then determine whether further civil commitment is appropriate or necessary. Civil commitment procedures may take place in a court or only involve physicians. If commitment does not involve a court there is normally an appeal process that does involve the judiciary in some capacity, though potentially through a specialist court.
Historically, until the mid-1960s in most jurisdictions in the US, all committals to public psychiatric facilities and most committals to private ones were involuntary. Since then, there have been alternating trends towards the abolition or substantial reduction of involuntary commitment, a trend known as “deinstitutionalisation”. In many currents, individuals can voluntarily admit themselves to a mental health hospital and may have more rights than those who are involuntarily committed. This practice is referred to as voluntary commitment.
In the United States, an indefinite form of commitment is applied to people convicted of some sexual offences.
For most jurisdictions, involuntary commitment is applied to individuals believed to be experiencing a mental illness that impairs their ability to reason to such an extent that the agents of the law, state, or courts determine that decisions will be made for the individual under a legal framework. In some jurisdictions, this is a proceeding distinct from being found incompetent. Involuntary commitment is used in some degree for each of the following although different jurisdictions have different criteria. Some jurisdictions limit involuntary treatment to individuals who meet statutory criteria for presenting a danger to self or others. Other jurisdictions have broader criteria. The legal process by which commitment takes place varies between jurisdictions. Some jurisdictions have a formal court hearing where testimony and other evidence may also be submitted where subject of the hearing is typically entitled to legal counsel and may challenge a commitment order through habeas corpus. Other jurisdictions have delegated these power to physicians, though may provide an appeal process that involves the judiciary but may also involve physicians. For example in the UK a mental health tribunal consists of a judge, a medical member, and a lay representative.
Training is gradually becoming available in mental health first aid to equip community members such as teachers, school administrators, police officers, and medical workers with training in recognising, and authority in managing, situations where involuntary evaluations of behaviour are applicable under law. The extension of first aid training to cover mental health problems and crises is a quite recent development. A mental health first aid training course was developed in Australia in 2001 and has been found to improve assistance provided to persons with an alleged mental illness or mental health crisis. This form of training has now spread to a number of other countries (Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Singapore, Scotland, England, Wales, and the United States). Mental health triage may be used in an emergency room to make a determination about potential risk and apply treatment protocols.
Observation is sometimes used to determine whether a person warrants involuntary commitment. It is not always clear on a relatively brief examination whether a person should be committed.
Containment of Danger
Refer to Obligatory Dangerousness Criterion.
Austria, Belgium, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Russia, Taiwan, Ontario (Canada), and the United States have adopted commitment criteria based on the presumed danger of the defendant to self or to others.
People with suicidal thoughts may act on these impulses and harm or kill themselves.
People with psychosis are occasionally driven by their delusions or hallucinations to harm themselves or others. Research has found that those who suffer from schizophrenia are between 3.4 and 7.4 times more likely to engage in violent behaviour than members of the general public. However, because other confounding factors such as childhood adversity and poverty are correlated with both schizophrenia and violence it can be difficult to determine whether this effect is due to schizophrenia or other factors. In an attempt to avoid these confounding factors, researchers have tried comparing the rates of violence amongst people diagnosed with schizophrenia to their siblings in a similar manner to twin studies. In these studies people with schizophrenia are found to be between 1.3 and 1.8 times more likely to engage in violent behaviour.
People with certain types of personality disorders can occasionally present a danger to themselves or others.
This concern has found expression in the standards for involuntary commitment in every US state and in other countries as the danger to self or others standard, sometimes supplemented by the requirement that the danger be imminent. In some jurisdictions, the danger to self or others standard has been broadened in recent years to include need-for-treatment criteria such as “gravely disabled”.
Refer to Deinstitutionalisation.
Starting in the 1960s, there has been a worldwide trend toward moving psychiatric patients from hospital settings to less restricting settings in the community, a shift known as deinstitutionalisation. Because the shift was typically not accompanied by a commensurate development of community-based services, critics say that deinstitutionalisation has led to large numbers of people who would once have been inpatients as instead being incarcerated or becoming homeless. In some jurisdictions, laws authorising court-ordered outpatient treatment have been passed in an effort to compel individuals with chronic, untreated severe mental illness to take psychiatric medication while living outside the hospital (e.g. Laura’s Law and Kendra’s Law).
Before the 1960s deinstitutionalisation there were earlier efforts to free psychiatric patients. Philippe Pinel (1745-1826) ordered the removal of chains from patients.
In a study of 269 patients from Vermont State Hospital done by Courtenay M. Harding and associates, about two-thirds of the ex-patients did well after deinstitutionalisation.
Around the World
In 1838, France enacted a law to regulate both the admissions into asylums and asylum services across the country. Édouard Séguin developed a systematic approach for training individuals with mental deficiencies, and, in 1839, he opened the first school for the intellectually disabled. His method of treatment was based on the idea that the intellectually disabled did not suffer from disease.
In the United Kingdom, provision for the care of the mentally ill began in the early 19th century with a large state-led effort. Public mental asylums were established in Britain after the passing of the 1808 County Asylums Act. This empowered magistrates to build rate-supported asylums in every county to house the many ‘pauper lunatics’. Nine counties first applied, and the first public asylum opened in 1812 in Nottinghamshire. Parliamentary Committees were established to investigate abuses at private madhouses like Bethlem Hospital – its officers were eventually dismissed and national attention was focused on the routine use of bars, chains and handcuffs and the filthy conditions the inmates lived in. However, it was not until 1828 that the newly appointed Commissioners in Lunacy were empowered to license and supervise private asylums.
The Lunacy Act 1845 was an important landmark in the treatment of the mentally ill, as it explicitly changed the status of mentally ill people to patients who required treatment. The Act created the Lunacy Commission, headed by Lord Shaftesbury, to focus on lunacy legislation reform. The commission was made up of eleven Metropolitan Commissioners who were required to carry out the provisions of the Act; the compulsory construction of asylums in every county, with regular inspections on behalf of the Home Secretary. All asylums were required to have written regulations and to have a resident qualified physician. A national body for asylum superintendents – the Medico-Psychological Association – was established in 1866 under the Presidency of William A. F. Browne, although the body appeared in an earlier form in 1841.
At the turn of the century, England and France combined had only a few hundred individuals in asylums. By the late 1890s and early 1900s, this number had risen to the hundreds of thousands. However, the idea that mental illness could be ameliorated through institutionalisation was soon disappointed. Psychiatrists were pressured by an ever-increasing patient population. The average number of patients in asylums kept on growing. Asylums were quickly becoming almost indistinguishable from custodial institutions, and the reputation of psychiatry in the medical world had hit an extreme low.
In the United States, the erection of state asylums began with the first law for the creation of one in New York, passed in 1842. The Utica State Hospital was opened approximately in 1850. The creation of this hospital, as of many others, was largely the work of Dorothea Lynde Dix, whose philanthropic efforts extended over many states, and in Europe as far as Constantinople. Many state hospitals in the United States were built in the 1850s and 1860s on the Kirkbride Plan, an architectural style meant to have curative effect.
In the United States and most other developed societies, severe restrictions have been placed on the circumstances under which a person may be committed or treated against their will as such actions have been ruled by the United States Supreme Court and other national legislative bodies as a violation of civil rights and/or human rights (e.g. O’Connor v. Donaldson). Thus a person is rarely committed against their will and it is illegal for a person to be committed for an indefinite period of time.
United Nations General Assembly Resolution 46/119, “Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness and the Improvement of Mental Health Care“, is a non-binding resolution advocating certain broadly drawn procedures for the carrying out of involuntary commitment. These principles have been used in many countries where local laws have been revised or new ones implemented. The UN runs programmes in some countries to assist in this process.
The dangers of institutions were chronicled and criticized by reformers almost since their foundation. Charles Dickens was an outspoken and high-profile early critic, and several of his novels, in particular Oliver Twist and Hard Times demonstrate his insight into the damage that institutions can do to human beings.
Enoch Powell, when Minister for Health in the early 1960s, was a later opponent who was appalled by what he witnessed on his visits to the asylums, and his famous “water tower” speech in 1961 called for the closure of all NHS asylums and their replacement by wards in general hospitals:
“There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water-tower and chimney combined, rising unmistakable and daunting out of the countryside – the asylums which our forefathers built with such immense solidity to express the notions of their day. Do not for a moment underestimate their powers of resistance to our assault. Let me describe some of the defenses which we have to storm.”
Scandal after scandal followed, with many high-profile public inquiries. These involved the exposure of abuses such as unscientific surgical techniques such as lobotomy and the widespread neglect and abuse of vulnerable patients in the US and Europe. The growing anti-psychiatry movement in the 1960s and 1970s led in Italy to the first successful legislative challenge to the authority of the mental institutions, culminating in their closure.
During the 1970s and 1990s the hospital population started to fall rapidly, mainly because of the deaths of long-term inmates. Significant efforts were made to re-house large numbers of former residents in a variety of suitable or otherwise alternative accommodation. The first 1,000+ bed hospital to close was Darenth Park Hospital in Kent, swiftly followed by many more across the UK. The haste of these closures, driven by the Conservative governments led by Margaret Thatcher and John Major, led to considerable criticism in the press, as some individuals slipped through the net into homelessness or were discharged to poor quality private sector mini-institutions.
Wrongful Involuntary Commitment
Mental health professionals have, on occasion, wrongfully deemed individuals to have symptoms of a mental disorder, and thereby commit the individual for treatment in a psychiatric hospital. Claims of wrongful commitment are a common theme in the anti-psychiatry movement.
In 1860, the case of Elizabeth Packard, who was wrongfully committed that year and filed a lawsuit and won thereafter, highlighted the issue of wrongful involuntary commitment. In 1887, investigative journalist Nellie Bly went undercover at an asylum in New York City to expose the terrible conditions that mental patients at the time had to deal with. She published her findings and experiences as articles in New York World, and later made the articles into one book called Ten Days in a Mad-House.
In the first half of the twentieth century there were a few high-profile cases of wrongful commitment based on racism or punishment for political dissenters. In the former Soviet Union, psychiatric hospitals were used as prisons to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society. British playwright Tom Stoppard wrote Every Good Boy Deserves Favour about the relationship between a patient and his doctor in one of these hospitals. Stoppard was inspired by a meeting with a Russian exile. In 1927, after the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States, demonstrator Aurora D’Angelo was sent to a mental health facility for psychiatric evaluation after she participated in a rally in support of the anarchists. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s in Canada, 20,000 Canadian children, called the Duplessis orphans, were wrongfully certified as being mentally ill and as a result were wrongfully committed to psychiatric institutions where they were forced to take psychiatric medication that they did not need, and were abused. They were named after Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec at the time, who deliberately committed these children to in order to misappropriate additional subsidies from the federal government. Decades later in the 1990s, several of the orphans sued Quebec and the Catholic Church for the abuse and wrongdoing. In 1958, black pastor and activist Clennon Washington King Jr. tried enrolling at the University of Mississippi, which at the time was white, for summer classes; the local police secretly arrested and involuntarily committed him to a mental hospital for 12 days.
Patients are able to sue if they believe that they have been wrongfully committed. In one instance, Junius Wilson, an African American man, was committed to Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, North Carolina in 1925 for an alleged crime without a trial or conviction. He was castrated. He continued to be held at Cherry Hospital for the next 67 years of his life. It turned out he was deaf rather than mentally ill.
In many American states sex offenders who have completed a period of incarceration can be civilly committed to a mental institution based on a finding of dangerousness due to a mental disorder. Although the United States Supreme Court determined that this practice does not constitute double jeopardy, organisations such as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) strongly oppose the practice. The Task Force on Sexually Dangerous Offenders, a component of APA’s Council on Psychiatry and Law, reported that “in the opinion of the task force, sexual predator commitment laws represent a serious assault on the integrity of psychiatry, particularly with regard to defining mental illness and the clinical conditions for compulsory treatment. Moreover, by bending civil commitment to serve essentially non-medical purposes, statutes threaten to undermine the legitimacy of the medical model of commitment.”
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