Helping a Loved One Get Treatment When They Don't Want to

Deborah Gray Health Guide
  • New Mexico lawmakers are considering a bill that will allow family members, doctors or other parties to seek a court order forcing a mentally ill person into outpatient treatment. This is nothing new - indeed it is a law already in 42 states. These laws are known as Kendra's laws, after Kendra Webdale, who was killed when Andrew Goldstein, a schizophrenic man who had been in and out of treatment centers, pushed her in front of a New York City subway train in 1999. They are primarily intended for mentally ill people who have not committed crimes and have resisted treatment.

    But they won’t work, as far as I’m concerned. I’m not completely opposed to the laws themselves, although I’m not foolish enough to think that the issue of whether they should exist or not is black and white. I think forcing people into outpatient treatment because they might commit a crime is a mighty slippery slope (Minority Report, anyone?).

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    No, my primary issue with the legislation is this: many of these states have not put enough money and effort into their mental health treatment systems to serve people who are voluntarily seeking treatment, or they lack the manpower.

    In addition, there are no effective systems in place to follow up with patients who go from clinic to clinic and emergency room to emergency room, as apparently was the case with Andrew Goldstein. Everyone seems to agree that he slipped through the cracks in the system, but no one seems to have come up with an effective way to prevent that from happening.

    So my questions are: what good is a law that tries to force the people who are resistant to treatment to get it if there isn’t enough money to treat them? What happens to people who live in rural areas and don’t have adequate transportation to get them to their appointment? What about the contention that blacks are five times as likely as whites to face court orders?
    It does not make sense to force an imperfect system on people. Here’s my suggestion to the lawmakers, some of whom are just posturing for their constituents and some of whom are genuinely trying to make a difference – focus on first improving the mental health care in your state and make sure that everyone who wants to get care does. Make sure the law is being applied fairly. Then worry about going after the people who are resistant. Otherwise, these bills will just be a waste of time and energy, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” and nothing will change.

Published On: February 10, 2006