A Right to Remain Psychotic? A New Standard for Involuntary Treatment in Light of Current Science
61 Pages Posted: 4 May 2013 Last revised: 4 Jul 2013
Date Written: May 3, 2013
Mass shootings, such as the killing of school children and staff in Newtown, Connecticut, have provided brutal reminders of inadequacies in our nation’s mental health system. In the wake of these shootings, President Obama asserted that “[w]e are going to need to work on making access to mental health care as easy as access to a gun.” But what should society do when the person needing mental health treatment refuses care — when the problem is not rooted in access but in free will? When is involuntary treatment justified? In deciding whether to forcibly medicate, multiple interests come into play, including patient autonomy, public safety, and the patient’s medical welfare. As a society, we have overemphasized patient autonomy and underemphasized patient welfare to the detriment not only of the patient’s well being but also of public safety — and even to the detriment of patient autonomy itself. This Article briefly examines the history of the involuntary treatment debate and how society arrived at the present imbalance. It then considers the implications of current scientific research on the brain and the nature of severe mental illness, using schizophrenia as an illustrative example. The Article explains how current involuntary treatment standards could be revised to reflect this scientific understanding and continue protecting a patient’s civil rights without making undue sacrifices of the patient’s long-term health and well-being. It also defends the proposed new standard against potential constitutional challenges.
The new standard would allow involuntary treatment for a limited number of years after onset of severe psychotic symptoms under specified conditions. It would also provide for more access to medical information by patients’ immediate family members and primary caretakers. The standard reflects (1) research showing the vital importance of early treatment for long-term prognosis and prevention of irreversible injury to the brain; (2) statistics suggesting the particular vulnerability of a maturing brain; (3) a respect for autonomy and the patient’s ultimate agency to reject treatment if no satisfactory treatment option can be found; (4) consideration of factors that uniquely affect autonomy concerns when patients are severely psychotic; and (5) research demonstrating that family involvement can greatly benefit treatment outcomes. Because brain science is currently an area of explosive growth and discovery, this Article recognizes that any involuntary treatment standard will need to be continually re-examined and revised in light of scientific progress.
Keywords: involuntary treatment, mental illness, schizophrenia, patient welfare, autonomy, science, neuroscience, neurolaw, constitution, liberty interest, medical model, civil rights model, First Amendment, history
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