By Shmuel Soiferman
The events of last Friday in the Sandy Hook Elementary School have shocked the nation. The murder of 26 people by one mentally ill young man has devastated us beyond belief. In its wake, people want action. President Obama is seeking change in the nation’s gun laws, and even the National Rifle Association is now supportive of bans on assault weapons. The NRA released a statement saying it was “shocked, saddened, and heartbroken by the news of the horrific and senseless murders in Newtown.”
But the real culprit is not the status of our gun-control laws.
There was a period in our recent history, under President Clinton, when there was a ban on assault weapons. The ban expired under President Bush. And although the law may have made us feel good when it was on the books, it didn’t help prevent the Columbine massacre. The Colorado killings were the first of a spate of mass murders that needs to be stopped. The lack of gun laws is not what really is to blame.
The real culprit here is how the pendulum has swung on the laws of forced hospitalization of people with active psychiatric disorders. In the past, it was relatively simple for family members of a mentally ill person to force that person into a treatment program. There were laws in place that allowed this to happen.
When abuses of these laws became commonplace, these laws were changed. In many states across the country, a system of checks and balances was put in place that ostensibly protected individuals from having their rights taken away inappropriately.
If a patient with an active psychiatric disorder is exhibiting behaviors that a certified health-care professional believes could lead to imminent harm to that person or another person, then that provider can initiate the process of involuntary hospitalization.
The operative words are “danger to oneself” or “danger to others.” In New York State, a family member must demonstrate that this is the case when calling for an ambulance for a forced hospitalization. If the person refuses to go with an ambulance, law enforcement is called, according to the protocol.
Thousands of people around us are suffering from mental illness but do not seek help on their own and refuse it when it is recommended by others. Many families are torn apart by a mentally ill family member who refuses help. There are people that are “held hostage” by the swings and moods of the mentally ill.
In both New York State and Connecticut, the process of involuntary hospitalization is fraught with difficulty. One needs a high level of proof and substantial documentation. After being hospitalized, the forcibly detained individual must be provided with information about the legal process and access to a lawyer. Detainment can last for only 48 hours in New York without proof of danger to oneself or to others. The New York State Mental Hygiene Law (9.39) also requires that two physicians sign off on further involuntary hospitalization.
The pendulum must swing in the other direction regarding these laws. Adam Lanza’s mother, it seems, was trying to deal with these laws at a very critical juncture. According to a friend, Adam realized what she was doing and killed her and then went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School. This is also the probable reason that he smashed his computer.
We have before us a choice. While the rights of the mentally ill must also be preserved and safeguarded, it is the laws of involuntary hospitalization that must be reexamined in light of last Friday’s horror. The safety of our children is at stake.