In Brief

Groups ask Governor Murphy to veto expansion of involuntary commitment

By: - July 20, 2023 11:59 am

Advocates warn expanding how long hospitals can hold patients involuntarily committed for psychiatric care violates their right to personal freedom and could worsen their trauma. New Jersey has just three psychiatric hospitals statewide, including Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, fueling a shortage of psychiatric beds. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A coalition of 47 mental health, disability rights, civil rights, and racial justice groups are urging Gov. Phil Murphy to veto a bill lawmakers passed last month that would double the time hospitals can hold people in mental crisis who have been hospitalized against their will.

In legislative hearings last month, hospital officials told lawmakers they often cannot place involuntarily committed patients in psychiatric facilities within three days, as state law now requires, and must then release them untreated even though they pose a danger to themselves or others. Under legislation both the Assembly and Senate passed last month, hospitals would get an additional three days to secure those placements.

In a letter this week, advocates acknowledged three days sometimes isn’t enough time to find needed psychiatric care. But they warned the bill is a “most extreme response” that denies people their liberty, without any evidence that doubling involuntary commitment time would be effective.

It also threatens to worsen racial disparities, they said. Patients of color are more likely to be deemed a danger and involuntarily committed than white patients, they added.

“Emergency rooms are ill-equipped to provide high-quality specialized mental health care services to those who may need it,” the letter states. “Instead, hospitals often restrain patients who have been involuntarily committed and serve as waiting rooms, further traumatizing individuals.”

Lawmakers should instead address the causes of hospitals’ challenges in securing psychiatric placements, which include a reluctance by some facilities to accept patients who are uninsured or homeless, those with criminal histories, and those who also have physical or developmental disabilities.

“Continued investment is needed for community supports and services that minimize the need for involuntary commitment and reduce the number of individuals who meet the standard for commitment,” advocates wrote.

They also urged the governor to evaluate the entire mental health system of care, with input from all stakeholders and an assessment of the demographics and geographies that are most impacted.

Groups that signed the letter include the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, Black Lives Matter Paterson, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness.

Murphy spokeswoman Christi Peace told the New Jersey Monitor Thursday the bill “is currently under review” but didn’t address advocates’ concerns.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.