Mental Health Laws Afford Key Legal Protections

For mental health awareness month, learn and help inform others of their rights.

Posted May 01, 2019

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As a family-focused mental health attorney, I routinely explain to individuals and families the rights afforded to them under mental hygiene laws. It is always encouraging for me to learn how useful this relatively basic information is, before I’m even able to provide personalized counsel and recommend precise courses of legal action.

This speaks to a lack of understanding and an abundance of misinformation about legal protections for those impacted by mental illness, despite the growing prevalence of mental health conditions. Mental Health America reports that more than 44 million people in the U.S. have a mental health condition and that the rate of young people affected by mental health issues is on the rise.

Knowledge gaps about mental health law also persist in professional arenas. I routinely field calls from mental health clinicians—psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, and related mental health professionals—who seek clarification about legal statutes so as to provide accurate information to their patients. I also regularly hear from attorneys who specialize in other fields like trusts and estates, as well as financial advisors and accountants—professionals who are considered “inner circle” among families grappling with mental health issues and unsure of where to turn.

For these reasons, I’m using the platform of Mental Health Awareness Month this May to clearly convey and widely disseminate the fundamental legal rights of individuals and families affected by mental illness. These details are available online in the form of a downloadable and printable checklist, which includes such information as:

  • An individual’s right to a court hearing and legal representation if they request their release from a psychiatric unit before the hospital believes they should be discharged or they refuse treatment;
  • An individual’s right to not include family or loved ones in discharge plans from mental health facilities; and
  • An individual’s right to make choices not in their best interest unless shown to a court that they lack the capacity to manage their lives or pose a danger to themselves and/or others.

The list also includes the rights for which families with loved ones struggling with mental illness must litigate, including:

  • The family’s right to bring forward a legal proceeding to have someone appointed to manage the individual’s health care and/or financial affairs;
  • The family’s right to request that a court direct their loved one to be committed to a hospital for evaluation and/or treatment (depending on state law); and
  • The family’s right to obtain an Order of Protection if their loved one is threatening or violent toward others in a family or living situation.

While nothing can serve as a substitute for personalized legal counsel, it is my hope that this resource will start individuals and loved ones on the road toward securing crucial, needed assistance.