Who should assess your mental health?

My turn

Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2001

Would you like to be involuntarily committed by your marriage counselor?

Under House Bill 115 the definition of "mental health professional" is expanded to include "martial and family therapist," "professional counselor" and "clinical social worker" among the practitioners who would gain the legal authority to have you involuntarily put in a psychiatric institution.

People that are distraught over current life situations could be "hauled off" - supposedly for their own good - for a 48-hour period while a judge (whom you don't see) makes a "probable cause" decision based on the information presented by the marriage counselor!

You then are taken to an evaluation facility where you are held for up to 72 hours. These times do not include Saturdays, Sundays and holidays or transportation time to and from facilities. So you could be held for five days before you are required to be examined.

This is a chilling scenario and one which does not correspond with the purpose of the 1981 Alaska civil commitment laws which aim to balance the legal and constitutional rights to liberty and public safety concerns "by providing due process safeguards at all stages of commitment proceedings."

Another part of this bill deals with commitment of those who are intoxicated. HB 115 proposes changing the law to allow physicians assistants and advanced nurse practitioners to be the "equal" of physicians with regards to certifying the medical condition of being intoxicated.

Under this bill, in an emergency situation an advanced nurse practitioner or physicians assistant can certify commitment on someone for being intoxicated, which can lead to an individual being held for up to 10 days before getting in front of a judge.

Further, under non-emergency situations, HB 115 gives them the authority to certify additional 30-day involuntary commitments. This gives them the power of a physician without the appropriate medical knowledge.

The logic behind giving physicians assistants and advanced nurse practitioners the right to certify medical conditions is based upon a fallacy which is part of the psychiatric and pharmaceutical industry's marketing campaign - that behavior problems, whether chemically induced or supposedly "mental phenomena," exist separately from overall physical health - which is simply not true. Medical conditions are capable of causing and contributing to someone being "intoxicated." Are we to ignore this for the sake of expediency?

What this bill really leads to is more long-term cost to taxpayers because these individuals often become patients for life in the mental health system. Then add to this the hidden cost in human terms of not treating the undiagnosed and undiscovered physical ailments. If we allow less qualified health care practitioners to make health decisions, this can open up expensive lawsuits from patients who were not given health care, but rather addiction care or psychiatric care. HB 115 does not remedy the shortage of qualified health care resources in Alaska. It simply lowers the standards on health care for all Alaskans, gives too much power to those in the health care field who are not medical doctors and potentially denies citizens basic civil liberties. This inevitably will lead to more problems needing to be addressed in the future.

Call the legislative hotline at 465-4648 and have them get a message to your legislator to vote no on HB 115.

Steven Pearce is director of the Citizens Commission on Human Rights for Alaska, Washington and Montana and is based in Seattle.

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