There is a lot of talk in the news lately about “Assisted Outpatient Treatment” or “Forced Treatment,” depending on who you ask. Regardless of what you call it, the purpose of the legislation is to take someone who does not want treatment for mental illness and utilize the court system to compel them. Not every state has AOT laws and those that do have AOT do not necessarily have the same rules governing it.
As a person living with Bipolar Disorder, I have many opinions on this. For this article, I want to focus on what the process actually looks like when it’s enforced by the courts and ultimately the police –specifically in the state of Ohio.
How Ohio Handles Assisted Outpatient Treatment
I live in Ohio and a new law recently went into effect that allows for a person with a history of mental illness to be treated against their will via court order. First, this law only works for mental illness. If you have lung cancer, for example, and choose to continue smoking, this law cannot be used to compel you to quit. Same if you are an addict with ten DUIs. Unless it can be proven that the drinking is a mental illness, you would be safe from the courts ordering you into treatment to stop.
Second, there were already laws in Ohio that allowed for a person to be committed to a psychiatric hospital if they were a danger to themselves or others. The new law took it a step further and allowed for treatment outside of that scope. It made it easier to force someone into treatment, in other words.
I do feel the need to point out that while mental health advocates and groups all over the country aim to prevent law enforcement, the court system, and the corrections system from being a source of treatment for persons with mental illness, the Ohio government created another level of bureaucracy for people with mental illness to become ensnared in.
Assisted Outpatient Treatment Court Orders Are Enforced by Police Officers
If the judge grants the petition to have a person probated, then that order must be enforced. If the person who is probated is unavailable or unwilling to turn themselves in, then the courts must go find that person.
The police are charged with locating people via court order. So, like anyone who has a warrant out for their arrest, detainment, etc., the person with mental illness is now being pursued by the police.
I work for a drop-in center for people with mental health, addiction, and trauma issues. Last week, the very law designed to help people with mental illness to receive compassionate care resulted in five SWAT officers coming into this safe haven to collect a person on probate. Other people with mental health concerns watched as armed SWAT members looked for someone in order to help them. It was a traumatic experience, whether as staff, a recipient of services, or the person the police were looking for. It is important to note, the officers weren’t deliberately trying to traumatize anyone, this is just an unfortunate byproduct of involving law enforcement.
It isn’t lost on anyone with mental illness that the method of help being prescribed by the government looks fairly close to the method used to apprehend criminals.
We Need a Better Way to Help People with Mental Illness
The court system, government, and the police are not to blame here. As easy as it would be to blame them, they aren’t the problem. When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was admitted to the hospital (as I was a danger to myself) and when I called my granny to let her know, she instructed me to keep my mouth shut and she would send a lawyer to get me out.
She wasn’t being malicious, arrogant, or egotistical. In her mind her suicidal, depressed, and delusional grandson would be better off at home alone than receiving proper care. She was just uneducated, misinformed, and ultimately wrong. However, had she gotten her way, my story could have ended much differently.
Advocating to send the police, the court system, and the government to help the seriously mentally ill is questionable. The amount of trauma caused to people who are not suffering from an illness, upon being detained by the police, is well documented. The court system is not a good place to provide care; they are tasked with the enforcement of laws, not with providing medical care.
We need options that provide and promote wellness and that do not cause additional trauma to the very people we are trying to help. The mental health system of care is seriously lacking in financial resources and using some of that precious money on government bureaucracy is ill conceived. There is no wellness in these methods, only force, trauma, and expense. The police and court system should not be tasked with recovery. They should be an option of very last resort, not a solution to a long-standing societal issue.
We are looking in the wrong places for solutions. Sick people need resources, support, and care. Last I checked, the court system and the police did not provide those.