The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

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July 20, 2013

How does the court commit the mentally ill?

— Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely has seen a lot of mentally ill people in more than 30 years in law enforcement. Over the years, law enforcement officers have had to fatally shoot a mentally ill armed resident who fired at officers and they have had to deal with a mentally ill person who committed suicide amid a standoff. They also frequently deal with suicidal people and those who are acting out and may need help.

With mass shootings still fresh in our minds and local schools improving campus security, one might wonder what can be done about people who are dangerously mentally ill.

In Limestone County, the probate judge determines whether a person who is mentally ill can be sent to a state hospital against his or her will. Involuntary committal, as it is called, occurs when a family member or someone else petitions the probate court to have someone sent to the state mental hospital — North Alabama Regional Hospital if they are under age 65 and Bryce Hospital if they are 65 and older — for a certain length of time. Once a mental evaluation is made and a person is committed, he or she cannot leave the facility until he or she is discharged.

Voluntary committal occurs when a person voluntarily agrees to seek treatment in a state mental hospital and can leave when he or she wishes.

More, but why?

Bobbi Bailey, clerk in the probate judge’s office, said the number of petitions has increased in the past few years, and not necessarily because there are more mentally ill people. She said those who have been committed for mental treatment are being released sooner than they used to be — faster turnaround, she called it. As a result, a mentally ill person’s loved one may be back more often to have the person committed again, if needed. Also, the abuse of drugs like methamphetamine, which can induce paranoia, has prompted parents and others to believe their loved ones are mentally ill rather than addicted to drugs, she said. The court does not involuntarily commit people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol; unless it can be determined they have a history of mental illness and are also a danger to themselves or others.

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