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Virginia Must Prize Mental Illness Treatment Over Psychosis

Legislature must pass more than lip service reform in wake of VA Tech tragedy

ARLINGTON, Va., Jan. 25 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The following is a statement by Executive Director, Kurt Entsminger, Esq., Treatment Advocacy Center:

Virginia's mental illness treatment laws are among the most restrictive in the nation. To get help via involuntary commitment, the state requires someone obviously incapacitated by the symptoms of an illness like schizophrenia to be an immediate physical danger to themselves or others.

The tragic results of this archaic law are seen every day across the Commonwealth, but drew national attention in the aftermath of the murders at Virginia Tech. The stories that play out every day in our homes and towns draw little national media attention, but create much pain.

Just ask Kathy Harkey.

"I cry every day over what happened to us and our son," Harkey told the Richmond Times Dispatch after the Virginia Tech murders. Harkey and her family tried for four years without success to get treatment for her son Joshua, but every door was closed because Joshua refused treatment and was not dangerous. Her struggle ended when Joshua, 24, killed himself.

For years, pleas for better treatment laws from families like the Harkeys, mental health professionals, law enforcement, and a few caring legislators have gone unheeded by the General Assembly. Last April, the failures of Virginia's treatment laws stunned the nation, and the General Assembly finally began to pay attention. The result is literally dozens of commitment law bills now under discussion.

Unfortunately, the majority of the proposed bills only marginally change Virginia's antiquated laws, and would not have helped people like Kathy's son Joshua. They will give legislators a photo op and a warm feeling, but will not bring real help to the people who most need it.

People who are clearly psychotic and dangerous to themselves or others should get mental illness treatment. But Virginia needs to do better. Virginia needs a law like Kendra's Law, and must also allow outpatient intervention before someone is in crisis.

The only bill now in the Senate that meets these criteria is SB 177.


Most states allow court ordered treatment for reasons like substantially deteriorating condition, incapability of making rational treatment decisions, or likelihood of becoming dangerous without treatment.

The most common proposed change to Virginia's law, however, has been a minor modification from the Chief Justice's Commission on Mental Health Law Reform. Instead of the current law's requirement that someone be an "imminent" physical danger, the commission's weak recommendation would trigger intervention if there is substantial likelihood someone will "cause serious physical harm to himself or others" in the near future.

That standard would still be among the worst in the nation.

Virginia should instead adopt a more progressive standard, such as the one developed by the Commission's Task Force on Commitment. That standard allows someone to be placed under a treatment order if he or she is "unable to comprehend the nature of his illness," is "substantially affected by his illness" and will, absent treatment, "continue to suffer a substantial deterioration in his previous ability to function in the community."


Kendra's Law is court-ordered community treatment - a less restrictive, remarkably effective, and far less costly alternative to hospitalization. Current Virginia law requires someone to meet the inpatient hospitalization standard before they can be court-ordered to outpatient treatment. This makes the current law largely unusable because community treatment is not for those who are imminently dangerous.

A better choice is a law like New York's Kendra's Law. Of those in that program:

-- 74% fewer experienced homelessness;

-- 77% fewer experienced psychiatric hospitalization;

-- 83% fewer experienced arrest; and

-- 87% fewer experienced incarceration.

Senate Bill 177 is a version of Kendra's Law.

The people who truly need help cannot afford to wait another year - or another day. They deserve a more effective, less restrictive treatment option. It is long past time for the General Assembly to make real reform to Virginia's mental illness treatment laws. Lip service reform would be shameful.

The Treatment Advocacy Center ( is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illnesses. We take no money from pharmaceutical companies.

SOURCE Treatment Advocacy Center
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