Violence, Mental Illness and Civil Commitment Laws Let’s Find a Way to Fix It

Joanne Kelly

My son’s kindergarten teacher once commented that my son Jay (not his real name) was going to be a lady killer someday. My rational mind was sure she was referring to the way his cherubic smile, twinkling eyes, halo of curls and boundless energy would attract women in swarms and break a few hearts. But a part of me has been holding my breath these many years – he’s approaching 40 now – praying that the literal meaning of the teacher’s words would never come to pass.

I know what the studies say: People with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. And I know that 99.9 percent of the time, Jay is a peaceful person who slips easily into passivity. But when he feels like he is being attacked or threatened, he explodes. With the delusions he suffers as a result of his schizoaffective disorder, his brain sometimes tricks him into thinking he is being watched. Or threatened. Or attacked.

Once when his delusions were running rampant, he disassembled all the smoke alarms, doorknobs, telephones and clocks in his mobile home, looking for the bug someone had planted to track his movements. I called his therapist and expressed my concern. Later that week, I found a circle of knives impaled in the linoleum of his kitchen floor. I don’t know what the circle of knives meant, but it sure looked menacing. I called his therapist once again. This time I asked her to hospitalize him.

She couldn’t or wouldn’t make it happen, I was never quite sure which. She was busy protecting his right to refuse treatment. I carefully reread our state’s involuntary commitment laws and brought photographic proof to his therapist and to our county’s crisis team that he was unable to take care of his basic needs and quite possibly was a danger to himself or others. Still, no dice. “Quite possibly” isn’t enough.

Concerned about his safety, I called the police for a welfare check. Fortunately, many of Boulder’s officers have received Crisis Intervention Training to help them de-escalate situations involving people with mental illnesses. The CIT officer who checked on Jay found water pouring out the door of his mobile home. Jay had plugged all the drains and left all the taps wide open to flood the place with “holy water.”

The officer didn’t need further convincing that my son needed help. He handcuffed Jay – a barbaric practice, if you ask me – and transported him to our local hospital. After evaluating Jay, they admitted him to a psychiatric ward at a hospital in another city, since no beds were available in Boulder.

Here’s the question: Why did I have to work so hard to get my son help when he was unquestionably profoundly ill? I know the standard answer is about protecting his civil rights. But I maintain that his mental illness is what restricts his civil liberties – not insisting that he get treatment for it.

Our laws need to change.

As Pete Earley says in his book, Crazy: A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness:

“Rather than see them [people who are psychotic and on the streets] as human beings who are suffering from serious brain disorders and who need medical attention, our laws defend their right to be crazy, as if having a chemical imbalance in your neurons is a choice….Obviously the civil rights of the mentally ill need to be guarded. But we have created a system that is heavily biased against intervention and treatment.”

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has made a proposal to update our civil commitment laws; make it easier to identify people with mental illnesses who are a danger to themselves and others; and provide safer, more-humane treatment.  Get details.

I believe it is a step in the right direction. It should make it easier to prevent another tragedy.

If you have not already done so, please encourage your faith community to get involved. Take the time to understand the issues and make your voices heard. Remember, one in four of your congregants has had a personal experience with mental illnesses. This is not someone else’s problem. Let’s find a way to fix it.

Joanne Kelly

Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

Co-founder and board treasurer


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.