In Minnesota, as elsewhere, the law allows a person to be involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility for up to three days if they are deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
In Florida, it’s known as The Baker Act, and it’s a bad law, writes Minnesota native Norman Ornstein in today’s New York Times. He should know. He used it in Florida for his son when a condo manager reported his son was having an episode. He wasn’t; the condo manager just wanted the then-24-year-old out.
Matthew was put in a cab three days later and sent home. His parents, who were not allowed to see him, were not told.
“Our relationship with our son was deeply damaged by this incident, making any further efforts by us to help him infinitely more difficult. It did nothing to help him deal with his condition and only increased his sense of being stigmatized and hounded,” Ornstein writes.
He also says that’s when he knew the entire mental health system is broken.
Finally, a vast majority of those with serious mental illness are not dangerous. We need a way to treat them, while also recognizing that failure to treat the small share who might be violent can lead to tragedies like suicide and murder.
The Baker Act is not going to solve these problems. We have far too few beds in mental health facilities, so most people who have a serious illness and are picked up for offenses like vagrancy from homelessness or drug possession (many people with mental illness self-medicate with drugs) end up in jails, where they lack treatment and almost invariably deteriorate.
Common-sense reforms, like ending a foolish Medicaid restriction that cuts off money for some larger mental health facilities, would help. But what is really required is a comprehensive treatment framework and the money to pay for it.
Not far from where a 19-year-old boy massacred 17 people in a school, there is a model program in which people with serious mental illness who are charged with minor crimes, can have the option of going to trial or entering a program with mental health treatment and a place to live.
States should use this as a model for all outpatient treatment, not just for those who enter the criminal justice system. There must be safeguards to protect people’s civil liberties, but families and mental health professionals should be able to petition a court to order someone to accept a comprehensive treatment plan if that person has gone untreated and is unaware that he or she has a serious mental illness and would otherwise be homeless, cycling in and out of jail or worse.
That, of course, is not the solution that is being proposed after the shooting because politicians are looking for a quick fix to keep voters happy.
Gov. Rick Scott of Florida has proposed spending $450 million to station guards in every school, with more funding for bulletproof windows, steel doors and so on, while adding a paltry $50 million for mental health care. Even as President Trump calls for bringing back “mental institutions,” his budget slashes Medicaid. Many Republicans in the meantime are demanding drug testing and work requirements for Medicaid recipients, which would cause many mentally ill people to lose their coverage — meaning no treatment and no housing.
If the nation ever decides to fix a broken system — unlikely — it will come too late for Ornstein’s son, who died when he was 34.
“The true insanity,” Ornstein wrote after Matthew’s death, “is that our laws leave those who suffer to fend for themselves.”
Related: After fighting her son’s addiction for years, one mother learned to let go (MinnPost)