Changes to Delaware’s mental health laws a ‘mixed bag,’ say advocates

    Gov. Jack Markell signs changes to Delaware's mental health laws. (Image courtesy of the governor's office)

    Gov. Jack Markell signs changes to Delaware's mental health laws. (Image courtesy of the governor's office)

    This week, Delaware updated its mental health laws, some for the first time in a half century.  But advocates are saying not every change is a step in the right direction.

    The law puts mental health screeners located in the community on call to make assessments during a mental health crisis, said Rita Landgraf, who leads the state Department of Health and Social Services. The additional training for the screeners means “they now understand what is available in the entire system, so the individual will get the right level of care at the right time.”

    The purpose? Keep people out of psychiatric inpatient facilities who don’t need to be there. “Prior to this, most people landed at the psychiatric facility,” said Landgraf.

    Landgraf also emphasized that the state is supporting more out-patient and voluntary commitment resources, so people can get help without having to be committed.

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    But the changes don’t address all concerns.

    Brian Stettin is policy director at the Treatment Advocacy Center, a watchdog organization that gave Delaware an F for its inpatient and outpatient commitment policies earlier this year. And while community-based care is a step forward, Stettin said, other language changes in the law will actually keep people out of care.

    He cites the addition of the word “imminent” to language about being a danger to oneself.

    “Now you have to look for injury that’s just about to happen,” he said. “I think this is going to lead people getting help a lot later than they should.”

    Other states are moving away from language about harm and instead focusing on “need for treatment” when considering inpatient or outpatient commitment, he added.

    “So it’s a mixed bag,” said Stettin.

    In 2012, Delaware overturned a law that had allowed anyone to file a complaint and start the involuntary mental health detainment process.

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