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Reforming rights

A mental health transformation is on the legislative table but at whose expense?



The mental health system has been a subject reported on by many news stations covering high-profile cases where the criminal is deemed mentally unstable, and what follows is a push for reform of the mental health system. That reform is long awaited and hotly debated both on local and national levels. 

At the local level this can be seen with new legislation being passed. For example, in San Luis Obispo County, Laura’s Law went into effect this year. Under this law, individuals can be mandated by the court to attend outpatient treatment. Supporters of this law defend this by stating that there will be safeguards in place to make sure that only those who are suffering from mental illnesses and are a danger to themselves or others will be mandated. But this raises the question: Can we force someone who is unwilling to receive treatment? And what will be done if these individuals refuse to attend treatment?

It’s been proven that forcing someone to complete treatment is less effective than treating someone who willingly participates. 

On the national level, steps have also been taken to reform our mental health system. Currently, legislation HR 2646, also known as Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016, has already passed the House of Representatives with a majority vote and is awaiting a vote in the Senate. This piece of legislation has been applauded as the answer America has been waiting for. It will revamp the mental health system by expanding mental health treatments and trainings on a national level as well as creating a new assistant secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that will oversee these programs. 

HR 2646, at face value, appears to usher in a new era of mental health services, but at a closer inspection, fails those it aims to serve. Specifically, by limiting the rights of individuals deemed mentally ill. HIPPA rights will become limited if this legislation is allowed to pass.

While we do need to help those individuals with mental illnesses, limiting their rights and forcing them into treatment is the wrong approach. Institutionalizing individuals because their family members do not wish to care for them or are unable to do so is reminiscent of the 1930s asylums. 

Once individuals’ medical health records become less restricted due to HR 2646, the only person affected will be the individuals themselves. Take, for example, an individual who is receiving replacement hormone therapy and has not disclosed this to their family members for one reason or another. Say this individual has come to the attention of the mental health system due to an incident or crisis. The family members would be able to make medical decisions such as halting the hormone therapy and impose other inpatient treatments. All against the individual’s rights. 

A new approach has to be taken with the mental health system. More needs to be done to teach the population that mental health issues affect everyone around us. The first thing that needs to be done in order to ensure a reform for the mental health system is to find a way to reduce the stigma that is associated with mental illness. By reducing the stigma, more people will become more proactive about finding services and treatments for their mental illnesses. The second step would be to ensure that there are services available as well.

So while HR 2646 sounds like it could become the guiding light of a new reform, it will instead have an effect where many individuals could be forced into unwanted inpatient treatments. Once patient’s rights are up for debate, who will be looking out for their best interest? 

Rafael Diaz is from Atascadero and working on his master’s of social work at the University of Southern California. Send comments through the editor at [email protected] or send a letter to the editor at [email protected].

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