Miss. mulls involuntary mental health commitment

Published 3:14 pm Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mississippi lawmakers are trying to simplify the process of having people involuntarily committed for evaluation or treatment of mental illness.

A bill that passed the House last week would set uniform standards in all 82 counties.

“We do have a hodgepodge of commitment laws,” said House Public Health Committee Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville.

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Some chancery clerks charge significantly more than others for the filing commitment papers, Holland said. He said the fees are as low as $120 in some counties and as high as $1,400 in others.

Lawmakers propose setting a $75 fee and requiring officials to develop a one-page commitment form that would be easy to understand. The bill — which awaits Senate consideration — also specifies that a chancery clerk could not require a person to hire an attorney before filing a commitment form.

The commitment process is often used when relatives or guardians believe a person with mental illness is dangerous to himself or to others. A judge evaluates a sworn statement about the person’s condition before deciding on whether to order a commitment.

“Once commitment papers are paid for, processed and signed, that patient’s name goes to the top of a list for a bed at a state hospital,” said Bill Kehoe, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Mississippi.

Kehoe said the commitment process could mean a person will receive treatment within days rather than weeks.

NAMI Mississippi supports the changes legislators are considering because people in some counties are having trouble filling out forms or getting quick decisions from judges, Kehoe said.

Wendy Bailey, spokeswoman for the state Department of Mental Health, said the commitment process needs to be streamlined.

“An individual who needs services should not encounter different commitment requirements based on where they live,” Bailey said in a written statement. “For example, in some counties an individual may be required to have an attorney while in other counties this isn’t a requirement.”

Kehoe said there’s also a problem in some counties of people with mental illness being put in jails because they can’t immediately get into proper facilities.

The bill is House Bill 1525.