Seminars explore Pennsylvania’s commitment laws while some push for changes

    When is it legal to commit a mentally ill person into treatment? The law deciding this question in Pennsylvania is more than 30 years old. A series of training seminars is offering a refresher course for law enforcement professionals, those in the mental health field, and family members.

    A delusional homeless person wearing a winter coat in 100 degree weather, at risk of suffering a heat stroke. Someone with schizophrenia, writing threatening letters to family members. They might need help, but can’t be forced into treatment unless they meet very specific criteria. Under Pennsylvania law, they must be a clear and present danger to themselves or others. The series of training workshops aims to clarify how to interpret and use this law, says organizer Kirk Heilbrunn of Drexel University. “People who are using it haven’t had a chance to get together in a large training setting, and discuss some of the particular issues and problems that come up surrounding the commitment process,” said Heilbrunn.

    In the 30 plus years since the law has been in effect, says Heilbrunn, different Pennsylvania counties have interpreted it in slightly different ways, so uniformity is one major goal. Heilbrunn says the training sessions also focus on ways to get people into treatment voluntarily, rather than committing them. One big issue that keeps coming up is the difficult balance between concern for a person’s health, and their rights, which Heilbrunn says are clearly stated in the laws. “Individuals with mental illness still have rights, and among those rights are liberty interests, and civil commitment is a very significant deprivation of liberty,” he said.

    Heilbrunn says the current laws can be endlessly frustrating for families who have to watch as a loved one spirals out of control. Mental health advocate and family member Jeanette Castello attended a training seminar in King of Prussia, and felt presenters at the seminar were generally opposed to involuntary treatment. She says many mentally ill people are too sick to seek treatment, or are not aware of how ill they are. “Treatment, when someone requires treatment, is actually a compassionate and medically sound thing to do, even if it has to involuntary,” said Castello. She says a workshop presenter kept referring to forced treatment as “deprivation of liberty” which was upsetting to her.

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    Castello favors pending Pennsylvania legislation that would make it easier for family members to commit loved-ones into outpatient treatment.

    Heilbrunn says the workshops are not taking a stand on the issue of rights vs treatment, but are meant to educate people on using the current law.

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