Forced Hospitalization for Mental Illness Not a Permanent Solution

Dinah Miller, MD


February 08, 2023

I met Eleanor when I was writing a book on involuntary psychiatric treatment. She was very ill when she presented to an emergency department in Northern California. She was looking for help and would have signed herself in, but after waiting 8 hours with no food or medical attention, she walked out and went to another hospital.

At this point, she was agitated and distressed and began screaming uncontrollably. The physician in the second ED did not offer her the option of signing in, and she was placed on a 72-hour hold and subsequently held in the hospital for 3 weeks after a judge committed her.

Like so many issues, involuntary psychiatric care is highly polarized. Some groups favor legislation to make involuntary treatment easier, while patient advocacy and civil rights groups vehemently oppose such legislation.

We don't hear from these combatants as much as we hear from those who trumpet their views on abortion or gun control, yet this battlefield exists. It is not surprising that when New York City Mayor Eric Adams announced a plan to hospitalize homeless people with mental illnesses — involuntarily if necessary, and at the discretion of the police — people were outraged.

New York City is not the only place using this strategy to address the problem of mental illness and homelessness; California has enacted similar legislation, and every major city has homeless citizens.

Eleanor was not homeless, and fortunately, she recovered and returned to her family. However, she remained distressed and traumatized by her hospitalization for years. "It sticks with you," she told me. "I would rather die than go in again."

I wish I could tell you that Eleanor is unique in saying that she would rather die than go to a hospital unit for treatment, but it is not an uncommon sentiment for patients. Some people who are charged with crimes and end up in the judicial system will opt to go to jail rather than to a psychiatric hospital. It is also not easy to access outpatient psychiatric treatment.

Barriers to Care

Many psychiatrists don't participate with insurance networks, and publicly funded clinics may have long waiting lists, so illnesses escalate until there is a crisis and hospitalization is necessary. For many, stigma and fear of potential professional repercussions are also significant barriers to care.

What are the issues that legislation attempts to address? The first is the standard for hospitalizing someone against their will. In some states, the patient must be dangerous, while in others there is a lower standard of "gravely disabled," and finally there are those that promote a standard of a "need for treatment."

The second is related to medicating people against their will, a process that can be rightly perceived as an assault if the patient refuses to take oral medications and must be held down for injections. Next, the use of outpatient civil commitment — legally requiring people to get treatment if they are not in the hospital — has been increasingly invoked as a way to prevent mass murders and random violence against strangers.

All but four states have some legislation for outpatient commitment, euphemistically called Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), yet these laws are difficult to enforce and expensive to enact. They are also not fully effective.

In New York City, Kendra's Law has not eliminated subway violence by people with psychiatric disturbances, and the shooter who killed 32 people and wounded 17 others at Virginia Tech in 2007 had previously been ordered by a judge to go to outpatient treatment, but he simply never showed up for his appointment.

Finally, the battle includes the right of patients to refuse to have their psychiatric information released to their caretakers under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 — a measure that many families believe would help them to get loved ones to take medications and go to appointments.

The concern about how to negotiate the needs of society and the civil rights of people with psychiatric disorders has been with us for centuries. There is a strong antipsychiatry movement that asserts that psychotropic medications are ineffective or harmful and refers to patients as "psychiatric survivors." We value the right to medical autonomy, and when there is controversy over the validity of a treatment, there is even more controversy over forcing it upon people.

Psychiatric medications are very effective and benefit many people, but they don't help everyone, and some people experience side effects. Also, we can't deny that involuntary care can go wrong; -the conservatorship of Britney Spears for 13 years is a very public example.

Multiple Stakeholders

Many have a stake in how this plays out. There are the patients, who may be suffering and unable to recognize that they are ill, who may have valid reasons for not wanting the treatments, and who ideally should have the right to refuse care.

There are the families who watch their loved ones suffer, deteriorate, and miss the opportunities that life has to offer; who do not want their children to be homeless or incarcerated; and who may be at risk from violent behavior.

There are the mental health professionals who want to do what's in the best interest of their patients while following legal and ethical mandates, who worry about being sued for tragic outcomes, and who can't meet the current demand for services.

There is the taxpayer who foots the bill for disability payments, lost productivity, and institutionalization. There is our society that worries that people with psychiatric disorders will commit random acts of violence.

Finally, there are the insurers, who want to pay for as little care as possible and throw up constant hurdles in the treatment process. We must acknowledge that resources used for involuntary treatment are diverted away from those who want care.

Eleanor had many advantages that unhoused people don't have: a supportive family, health insurance, and the financial means to pay a psychiatrist who respected her wishes to wean off her medications. She returned to a comfortable home and to personal and occupational success.

It is tragic that we have people living on the streets because of a psychiatric disorder, addiction, poverty, or some combination of these. No one should be unhoused. If the rationale of hospitalization is to decrease violence, I am not hopeful. The Epidemiologic Catchment Area study shows that people with psychiatric disorders are responsible for only 4% of all violence.

The logistics of determining which people living on the streets have psychiatric disorders, transporting them safely to medical facilities, and then finding the resources to provide for compassionate and thoughtful care in meaningful and sustained ways are very challenging.

If we don't want people living on the streets, we need to create supports, including infrastructure to facilitate housing, access to mental health, and addiction treatment before we resort to involuntary hospitalization.

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Dinah Miller, MD, is a co-author of Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). She has a private practice and is an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.


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