Advocates hope law will ease evaluations of mentally ill
Oct. 9, 2003
Sean R. Sedam
Staff Writer

A new state law will make it easier for families and friends to get help for people suffering from severe mental illness, mental health advocates said.

The law, which went into effect Oct. 1, sets a broader standard for assessing the danger that the mentally ill pose to themselves or others. Judges use the criteria to decide whether to order a psychiatric evaluation against a person's will.

The new law allows such an evaluation if the person "presents a danger to the life or safety of [him or herself] or of others."

The law went into effect a little more than a year after an Adelphi man shot and killed two Prince George's County sheriff's deputies on Aug. 29, 2002, as they tried to take the man into custody for an emergency psychiatric evaluation.

The parents of James R. Logan, 24, testified earlier this year before the General Assembly that their son underwent a psychiatric evaluation two days before the shootings. A psychiatrist said Logan should be admitted to the hospital for treatment of paranoid schizophrenia, but Logan refused to sign the admissions forms. Because, in the doctor's opinion, Logan did not present an imminent danger to himself or others the doctor had no legal authority to admit him.

"The emergency evaluation standard ... could also have averted this tragedy," Karen and James Logan testified.

Before Oct. 1, state law allowed an emergency psychiatric evaluation only if there was "clear and imminent danger of the individual's doing bodily harm to the individual or another."

That stricter requirement made it difficult for families and friends to get help for people with mental illness before they found themselves in a dangerous situation, said Jeffrey Janofsky, director of the Psychiatry and Law Program of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

For example, a judge might not see a person who had refused to eat or drink as in imminent danger. When it was finally determined that they were in danger, it could be too late.

"They wouldn't be able to get them into the hospital until they are on death's door," Janofsky said.

The new law could prevent such a situation.

"This is a way of intervening early," Janofsky said.

Del. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam (D-Dist. 10) of Baltimore said that Logan's case and the case of a girl in her district who bludgeoned her mother to death after the mother tried unsuccessfully to get help for her daughter's mental illness led the delegate to sponsor the bill that became law.

"If we act quicker and more efficiently when these calls [for help] come in, we'll be able to save lives," said Nathan-Pulliam, who has 40 years experience as a registered nurse.

The "danger to self or others" clause is the same standard required for admitting someone to the hospital for treatment, said Katharine Crane, co-chairwoman of the treatment committee with the Maryland affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.