The Daily Dallas News
Source: The Daily Dallas News

Dear Governor Abbott:

I support your decision to veto SB 359. It was a bill unlikely to help Texans.

However, while your decision was correct, the reasons you’ve given for the veto are misguided.

SB 359 had many problems. It aimed “to provide authority to police officers to apprehend a person for emergency detention and to certain health care facilities to temporarily detain a person with mental illness.”

On the surface, not a bad idea. Detaining people during a psychotic episode has the potential to prevent harm.

But, as a psychologist, I say the bill sets the bar for helping people much too high.

SB 359 says that “a facility may detain a person who voluntarily requested treatment from the facility or who lacks the capacity to consent to treatment, if the person expresses a desire to leave the facility or attempts to leave the facility before the examination or treatment is completed and a physician at the facility has reason to believe that the person has a mental illness and because of that mental illness there is a substantial risk of serious harm to the person or to others unless the person is immediately restrained and believes there is not sufficient time to file an application for emergency detention or for an order of protective custody.”

To be covered by this bill, a person would have to voluntarily ask for treatment and then change his/her mind about wanting treatment.

This rarely happens.

Even if there were people to whom the bill might apply, the bill’s stipulation that “the period of a person’s detention may not exceed four hours following the time the person first expressed a desire to leave, or attempted to leave” is utter nonsense. Holding a person in the midst of a psychotic episode for four hours so they won’t do harm to themselves or others, is a ridiculous proposition since these episodes typically last much longer.

Even more ludicrous is the bill’s call for people in crisis to be released to a police officer and taken into custody. There is not even one county in America in which the psychiatric facility serving that county has as many individuals suffering from severe psychiatric disorders as the county jail does. We need to stop locking up people with mental illness and start treating them.

Explaining your decision to veto the bill, you cited the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which limit state authority to deprive a person of liberty. Many others have also used this logic as rationale for allowing people with serious mental illness to remain untreated. But, nearly half of all people with serious mental illness also suffer from anosognosia, the lack of awareness of their illness. Do you really believe that people who lack such understanding have the right to roam our streets, potentially endangering themselves as well as others? We don’t use these constitutional amendments to argue that older persons with dementia – a form of mental illness – should be permitted to wander freely.

Texas law is particularly important to me, as Texas has been home to my adopted daughter since 2011. At age 18, she sought refuge from her birthmother when my husband and I forbade her from dating a heroin addict whom she’d met in a psychiatric hospital. She’s refused treatment for her serious mental illness for nearly 5 years. In Texas my daughter has been in and out of jail, became addicted to methamphetamines, and often lives on the streets.

This is no more the life I’d hoped for my adopted daughter than the one I’m sure you want for your Audrey.

The Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015, H.R. 2646, fixes the nation’s broken mental health system by refocusing programs, reforming grants, and removing barriers to care. The bill, introduced by Congressman Tim Murphy (R-PA), empowers parents to help ill children and calls for additional psychiatric hospital beds to meet the needs of people in crisis.

I hope you’ll consider supporting law similar to H.R. 2646 in Texas and use the power of the governor’s office to make Texas a model state for treating people with serious mental illness with the compassion and dignity they deserve.

This letter was sent to Governor Abbot on August 3, 2015.

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