Ohio Steps up to Better Serve Mentally Ill Individuals

By Summer Interns Lora and Sarah

Ohio previously used an involuntary treatment standard based primarily on a person’s likelihood of being dangerous instead of using a more progressive “need for treatment” standard as is happening in many other states.  According to Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, people with severe mental illness “shouldn’t have to commit a crime to get mental-health treatment”. She strongly endorsed court-ordered outpatient treatment as a means seeing that they get it.  Advocates in Ohio have also been pushing for a law that will lower civil commitment thresholds, and in June the State finally acted.  After multiple hearings and votes in the Ohio House and Senate, SB 43 passed with unanimous approval in both chambers, and on June 17, 2014, Governor John Kasich signed the bill into law.

This new legislation will change the laws concerning civil commitment by broadening the definition of “mentally ill person subject to court order”. The new definition will include people who satisfy all of the following conditions: 

There are many specific changes to the law that help the mentally ill. Some of these changes are:

The legislation also increases the ability of courts to commit those they think meet these conditions to not just hospitals but also to out-patient treatment centers as well. According to the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Association (OPPA), even though court-ordered treatment (including outpatient services) has long been a legal option in Ohio, only Summit and Butler counties have managed to issue assisted outpatient treatment effectively. In other places, the ambiguity of the wording of the law and uncertainty about its application has led to its under-use – all too often leading to a vicious cycle of hospitalization, incarceration, homeless, and, in the worst cases, suicide. The language of the new law encourages greater implementation of outpatient treatment by improving the state’s commitment standard and by allowing private individuals (including family members) to petition the courts for involuntary commitment of a person in need of treatment.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio issued a statement applauding this step forward in mental healthcare legislation, but foresees a few challenges ahead. The new civil commitment law expands the power to commit individuals to court-ordered mental health treatments beyond situations in which an individual is a substantial risk to themselves or others, potentially opening the door to arbitrary civil commitment. While protecting public safety is important, ACLU Ohio believes that the most serious impact on rights is when government authorizes the incarceration of people. Accordingly, ACLU Ohio argues that standards such as those included in the law deserve the highest degree of scrutiny to ensure the right balance is struck. 

Copyright Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless Street Chronicle October, 2014 Cleveland, Ohio.