The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 11, 2013

Lawmakers to consider new treatment options for mentally ill

Bill will be introduced early in session

CHARLESTON — An attempt to alter the way in which the mentally ill are treated by allowing voluntary compliance in treatment rather than being sent involuntarily to a hospital looms as an issue before the West Virginia Legislature.

In a pilot project being tested in Kanawha, Boone and Lincoln counties, patients who otherwise would be institutionalized are allowed to voluntarily undergo treatment for emotional disorders or substance abuse.

Existing law says a judge must declare an individual as a threat to himself or society before decisive action is taken, counsel Kevin Baker explained.

“This would change that standard so that the judge would have to find, based on the testimony of a psychiatrist or psychologist, that individual, without treatment, is likely to decompensate due to mental health or drug abuse to the point you become a danger,” Baker said.

“This is sort of an in-between commitment and no need for treatment at all.”

Wendy Elswick, assistant attorney general for the Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, said the pilot project has kept 296 people from being committed since it came on line in 2010.

“It has become increasingly successful,” she told the Joint Committee on the Judiciary in Monday’s interims session.

In current practice, an individual may be held 30 days in a mental hygiene petition before a follow up hearing is held, explained Linda Artimez, director of mental hygiene for the state Supreme Court.

“This is an alternative to that,” she said of the temporary compliance program.

“This is not inpatient. This is essentially another means of outpatient commitment.”

Put simply, she explained, it’s a method to intervene in a troubled individual’s life with meaningful help before violence flares, directed either at the patient or at society.

Under the plan, a person with emotional problems could apply for the compliance order, which, if granted would allow the individual to undergo various forms of treatment for up to six months.

“This would be an in-between measure where you’re catching somebody before they reach the point of dangerousness,” Artimez told the lawmakers.

“It’s not as large of a decrease in their civil liberties because they’re not inpatient.”

Artimez said the program hopefully can be expanded across all 55 counties.

No one alluded directly to recent massacres by gunmen in Colorado or Connecticut, but Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, addressed the matter of guns falling into the hands of the disturbed.

“Aren’t you leaving some dangerous people who shouldn’t have a firearm in this program?” he inquired.

“I see this as a way to help keep people from reaching that point of violence,” Artimez responded.

She told a panelist co-chairman, Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, the program has a number of goals, one of which is to reduce the number of individuals sent to state hospitals and save taxpayer dollars in the process.

Another aim is to increase public safety by treating people at an early stage, she said.

“You’re catching folks and getting them into a treatment program prior to them becoming dangerous,” the assistant attorney general said.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, the other co-chairman, said the bill before the committee will be offered once the session gets underway Wednesday.

Baker said judges haven’t used the temporary compliance order as an alternative.

“This would save the state a lot of money and give the person a better quality of life,” he told the panel.

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