Lawmakers are demanding changes to mental health laws

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An Oklahoma City woman was experiencing hallucinations when she grabbed her mother’s sweatshirt and pulled her toward the front door, according to a police report. The woman screamed, “What did you do to my mother?” As soon as he slammed his mother’s head against the wall and pushed her off the front porch.

Her mother told Oklahoma City police that her daughter had schizoaffective disorder and urged authorities to take her for a mental health evaluation, which could result in forced treatment, interrupting three years of similar episodes. Can come.

According to the report, the officers refused. Police knocked on the front door, but the woman turned on the music she was playing and ignored them, the report said.

She was no longer hurting anyone. The officials could not do anything.

Oklahomans with mental illness or substance abuse conditions can be detained for stabilization treatment if they pose an immediate risk of harm to themselves or others. But the requirement that harm be done immediately disqualifies many people who need help, making their conditions worse, often resulting in homelessness, jail, serious injury, or death.

A Tulsa lawmaker aims to change that with House Bill 3451.

According to research from the Treatment Advocacy Center, Oklahoma is one of six states whose civil commitment laws still mandate immediate or imminent threats.

In a 2020 report, the Treatment Advocacy Center condemned Oklahoma’s law for requiring significant mental and physical deterioration before someone can be placed on an emergency hold.

“When you require an impending standard, when you require a decline, you’re essentially saying, ‘Get sick and maybe we’ll harm ourselves,'” said Saba Muhammad, the center’s senior legislative and policy adviser. The right time will be found before delivery.” “And the question is, why isn’t your alienation from reality, from your ability to reach your self-determination, why isn’t that degradation a sufficient loss?”

From July 1, 2022, to June 30, 2023, mental health providers approved 2,062 involuntary admissions to publicly funded treatment centers, according to data provided by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Law enforcement officers are the state’s default responders to anyone in mental health or substance abuse crisis. Armed police can increase confusion and paranoia, resulting in frequent arrests and detentions where jailers with minimal training are responsible for their health and safety, which can have fatal consequences. A recent Oklahoma Watch investigation found that 28 prison inmates died from untreated mental health or substance abuse conditions in 2022.

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When someone is taken into protective custody by police, they are placed in handcuffs and taken to a hospital or crisis center for evaluation by a mental health professional, which can admit eligible patients for up to five days. People who need more than five days may be ordered to remain in treatment by a judge using the same criteria.

A bill filed last month could result in earlier intervention, reducing law enforcement encounters, arrests and long-term commitments. But it also means suspending people’s rights as quickly as possible.

The proposal from Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, expands who is eligible for commitment to include anyone who has harmed themselves or others as a result of mental illness or substance abuse. Has a history of threatening or causing physical harm. It also includes excessive destruction of property as a reason for detention. House Bill 3451 is one of more than 2,000 new bills filed for the 2024 legislative session.

Brian Wilkerson, director of litigation and legal services for the Oklahoma Disability Law Center, said the law is intentionally narrow. Instead of adding grounds for detaining someone, he said, lawmakers should clarify the current language to ensure that a warrant can be issued if someone violates their rights.

“The paramount consideration should be, ‘Is it necessary to deprive this person of his civil liberties?’ No matter how small it is,” Wilkerson said. “It should be a last resort.”

Senator Darrell Weaver, R-Moore, filed a bill that would immediately remove the wording from the law. Boatman filed a similar bill in 2022, but Department of Mental Health officials told Boatman the criteria were too broad without any urgency. The sailor agreed to leave the bill until better language could be developed.

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Rep. Jared Deck, D-Norman, is working with Boatman on the new bill. The pair met with about 25 mental health providers, hospital representatives, mental health department staff and policy researchers on Wednesday. Boatman said he filed the bill to start a discussion about how to improve the law and will continue to update the proposal as more stakeholders consider.

“I’m trying to give everybody who’s making these decisions a little more leeway,” Boatman said. “At some point, we have to let judges become judges and mental health experts become mental health experts.”

Dwayne Moore works for the state Department of Mental Health and teaches law to cadets.

“This is the only exception where a person’s liberty can be taken away,” Moore said. “Therefore, this criteria should be narrowly defined, balancing the need for someone’s treatment with his or her constitutional rights.”

Moore said he is not opposed to changing the language of the law, but that it is more important to train officers, mental health workers and judges to interpret it.

Kathy Wolfe, of Weatherford, was a psychiatric nurse for more than 40 years, caring for children in state custody and teaching nursing at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, where she was in charge of psychiatric unit rotations. Now, she is retired and advocates for changes in the law that would allow more patients to be referred to emergency care.

“I support temporarily suspending his liberty so he can get the help he so desperately needs,” Wolfe said. “In this state of mind, they cannot make decisions about treatment or protect themselves. “If we don’t help them, aren’t we taking away their right to care?”

Hallucinations, delusions, paranoia and other symptoms can prevent people with serious mental illness or addiction from taking care of themselves, Wolfe said. According to the National Institutes of Health, at least half of patients with schizophrenia and 40% of patients with bipolar disorder also have a condition that makes them unaware of their diagnosis or its severity, hindering their ability to make treatment decisions. She comes. Left untreated, those symptoms can lead to job loss, homelessness, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts or violent behavior.

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“There could be a mental health center on every corner in Oklahoma and they won’t go to it because they don’t know they need it,” Wolfe said. “Oklahoma should be protecting its citizens and we are not doing that. “We are letting them suffer.”

The change in law is likely to increase the number of patients receiving mental health crisis care, meaning the state will need more providers and beds. A new mental health hospital planned for Oklahoma City would add 100 state beds and an urgent care center for people in crisis, according to the Department of Mental Health website.

Three more bills filed by Boatman aim to increase mental health workers and access to care. They will allow social workers to complete their licensure while working a full-time job; Expand insurance coverage for behavioral health care; and fund psychiatric and psychological programs at the Oklahoma State University Medical Authority.

Wilkerson said the state should first invest more time and money into increasing access to treatment, reducing the number of mental health emergencies and the need for crisis care.

In November 2022, the U.S. Department of Justice launched an investigation into poor access to mental health care in Oklahoma and the response of Oklahoma City police to crises.

“It is our failure as a community that we are not providing those services at a more advanced level,” Wilkerson said. “If we were doing that, we wouldn’t have to debate the merits of taking away someone’s freedom.”

Whitney Bryan is an investigative reporter at Oklahoma Watch covering vulnerable populations. His recent investigations focus on mental health and substance abuse, criminal justice, domestic violence, and nursing homes. Contact him at (405) 201-6057 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @soonerreporter,

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