Georgia May Allow Mental Health Counselors To ‘Involuntarily Commit’ Patients

A Georgia Senate health committee has unanimously passed a bill “that would allow licensed professional counselors to involuntarily commit to an institution for 72 hours patients who appear to be mentally ill and a danger,” the Atlanta Journal Constitution reports.

While doctors and psychologists in Georgia already possess the authority to involuntarily commit mentally ill patients they deem to be a “danger,” licensed counselors do not share that power. The bill — SB 65 — looks to change that, with supporters arguing that the additional authorities will ease the burden on Georgia’s mental health institutions:

Giving licensed professional counselors the authority to involuntarily commit patients would fill a need and ease the strain on Georgia’s mental health system, promoters of SB 65 testified Tuesday. Georgia has roughly 4,800 licensed professional counselors.

“We need more investment in our mental health services,” Sen. Nan Orrock, D-Atlanta, told members of the Senate Health and Human Service Committee. “This is one piece of the puzzle.”

The bill is under discussion at a time when Georgia is struggling to provide more community-based mental health services, including mobile crisis teams, as part of a 2010 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that stemmed from an investigation into the abuse and death of patients in state mental hospitals.

The history of mental health institutionalization in America is fraught with controversy, but advocates for the mentally ill generally agree that community-based mental health services are medically preferable — and more humane — than institutionalized services. The fact that SB 65 was spurred by Georgia’s dearth of community-based practices suggests that the bill is simply treating a symptom of Georgia’s mental health woes, rather than addressing the issue’s root cause — namely, that the state does’t have nearly enough funding allocated for its mental health care system.

While the temporary institutionalization of mentally ill Americans who might be a danger to themselves or others is a relatively uncontroversial status quo, such laws may add to existing stigmas about mental health care and dissuade Americans with violent thoughts from seeking the care they need. For example, New York’s sweeping new gun safety law was met with reticence by mental health professionals for what some perceived to be draconian provisions requiring care providers to “report” potentially violent patients to a state board.

But Georgia’s law goes even further than that, adding institutionalization to the powers that a doctor has over patients. That’s pretty significant for the over half a million Georgians suffering from a severe mental disorder, as studies have shown that over a third of the mentally ill do not seek care due to social stigmas and the fear of being committed.