Involuntary commitment is a legal procedure by which a person is placed in the custody of the State Department of Mental Health for treatment. This is done only if necessary and after every effort is made to provide treatment for the person on a voluntary basis. A person cannot be committed due to drug and/or alcohol problems alone. The law states that such problems do not constitute a mental illness for purposes of the Act.
A petition for commitment may be signed in the county in which the mentally ill individual resides. If the individual resides in Dallas County, the petitioner should come to the Dallas County Probate Office and sign an official Petition of Involuntary Commitment to be reviewed by the Probate Judge. The petitioner is usually a family member or someone who has reason to believe that the individual is mentally ill and have personal knowledge of any specific behavior, acts, attempts or threats by the individual which pose substantial harm to the individual or others. Other required elements are that the individual is unable to make a rational decision regarding the need for treatment and that without such treatment he or she will continue to suffer mental distress, acts, or behavior which signify real or present danger.
Upon receipt of the Petition, the Probate Judge will consider the facts and circumstances of the case and determine if the petition has merit. If a determination is made that further mental health evaluation is needed, the Probate Judge will issue an pick-up order for the individual named in the petition to be taken to Cahaba Mental Health. This process will be coordinated with the family or caretakers of the individual, the Probate Office, Sheriff's Department and Cahaba Mental Health. A mental evaluation will be conducted by Cahaba, who will determine if the patient can be stablized through medication and released to the family or if further in-patient evaluation is needed.
In the event further evaluation is needed, the patient will be taken to an in-patient psychiatric facility for an intial evaluation, which can extend up to 14 days. During the 14 day period, the Probate Court will be notified by the attending physician or caseworker at the psychiatric facility if a determination has been made that the patient needs longer in-patient treatment in a State Mental Health facility or that the patient is stable and can be released.
If longer in-patient treatment is recommended, the Probate Court will then schedule a hearing for all parties. At the hearing, testimony will be heard from all parties, and the Probate Judge will determine whether the criteria for commitment has been met. Attorneys are appointed for both petitioner and respondent and all hearings are open to the public, unless otherwise requested by respondent. If an Emergency Order is needed, the Court must have a letter from a Physician stating an emergency exists.
If the criteria for commitment are met, then the Court will issue an order. Any treatment ordered must be the least restrictive alternative available and will take place at a designated mental health facility. The length of treatment is determined by the treating physician, and may be up to 150 days before a subsequent hearing on the merits will be necessary. If the criteria for commitment are not met, then the petition will be dismissed. At no time may the Court order treatment for substance abuse alone, however, there are occasions when a dual diagnosis of both substance dependence and mental illness is involved. In these cases, treatment for substance abuse must be voluntary, even if done simultaneously with psychiatric treatment.
The purpose of involuntary commitment is to provide psychiatric treatment for mentally ill individuals who have become a danger to themselves or others, and are refusing voluntary treatment. However, the Court is ever mindful of the serious deprivation of liberty which this process necessarily involves. The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution applies to all citizens, whether mentally ill or not, and every effort is made to ensure that rights are not compromised and unnecessary treatment is never tolerated. The Probate Judge will always take the least restrictive measures to get help for a person with mental illness.