Mass shootings are quickly becoming a new norm; over 900 people have died in mass shootings in the U.S. since 2006. And while many people agree that the mental health system needs work, some “solutions” could undermine the rights of people with mental health issues. U.S. Representative Tim Murphy, a psychologist, proposed a bill in 2013 called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. In response to several recent shootings, Murphy has begun advocating for the benefits of his bill, but a provision in the legislation could force some people with mental health concerns to take psychotropic medication.
About the Bill
The legislation is more than 100 pages, and offers numerous proposals for addressing mental health issues. One proposal is the use of a treatment protocol called assisted outpatient treatment (AOT). This treatment approach, already legal under some circumstances in 45 states, permits courts to order a person with a history of “medication noncompliance” to take psychiatric medications. Murphy’s legislation would greatly expand the power of courts to force medication on people with mental health issues.
Why Forced Medication Is a Problem
Forced treatment is controversial even when violence and severe mental health issues are factors, but forcing someone to take medication simply because of a history of medication noncompliance is even more troubling to many mental health professionals. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Program, two government administrations dedicated to mental health care, both oppose forced treatment.
The trouble with forced treatment doesn’t end there, though. Sometimes those with psychiatric issues stop taking medication for good reason. Particularly among people with severe symptoms, medication can cause serious—and sometimes even life-threatening—side effects.
Not all medications work for all people, which means a person forced to take medication could be forced to undergo serious side effects even though the medication doesn’t improve mental health symptoms. Therapy can be just as effective as medication, and therapy can actually be more effective than medication at treating some mental health issues. By forcing people with mental health issues to take medication, courts privilege one treatment over another.
Perhaps most importantly, forced treatment undermines the autonomy of people with mental health conditions. Courts have repeatedly ruled that simply having a mental health condition does not remove a person’s fundamental rights. Forced treatment, however, destroys the hallowed concept of informed consent. It could also deter people who need help from seeking it.
Is It Legal?
Whether or not Murphy’s bill is legal is an issue for legal scholars. However, legislation can’t generally be ruled illegal until someone brings a lawsuit alleging that a law is unconstitutional. This means that, if Murphy’s bill becomes law, the issue could ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court. Even if the Court rules that the legislation is unconstitutional, it could affect thousands of people before being struck down.
- Assisted outpatient treatment laws. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/solution/assisted-outpatient-treatment-laws
- Grossman, D. (2014, June 4). Scary new congressional bill would force medication on some mentally ill people. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org/personal-health/scary-new-congressional-bill-would-force-medication-some-mentally-ill-people
- Mass shootings toll exceeds 900 in past seven years. (2013, December 02). Retrieved from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/02/21/mass-shootings-domestic-violence-nra/1937041/
- Nordal, K. C. (2010, November). Where has all the psychotherapy gone? Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2010/11/perspectives.aspx
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