Congress Looks to Revamp Mental Health System

Soon, Congress will hear testimony concerning the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. Republican representative, Tim Murphy, from Pennsylvania, sponsored the bill, and, though many agree that the mental health care system requires revamping, some provisions in the bill have sparked controversy. Among the more controversial provisions is one that supports the increased use of involuntary outpatient treatment—via court-ordered therapy for “certain mentally ill people with a history of legal or other problems.” Detractors of this provision claim that it will erode trust in doctor-patient relationships, and that it presents a civil rights issue. However, 45 states have compelled treatment programs already, one of which is New York.

New York’s compelled treatment program, Kendra’s Law, was passed in 1999. Since the implementation of Kendra’s Law, studies show that the percentage of patients returning to the hospital or getting arrested has greatly decreased. The statistic is significant, as “about 350,000 Americans with a diagnosis of severe mental illness…are in state jails and prisons” and the availability of psychiatric beds meets only 10 percent of that need. 

Read more here.

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Bitter Battle Rages over Continuing Life Support for Brooklyn Woman

A bitter court battle is raging over whether an elderly Brooklyn woman should continue to be kept alive. Sylvia Sodden, 78, is still on life support, even though her original health care proxy agreed to its removal. In 2011, Sodden appointed her godson, Joe Arrigo, as her health care proxy. Arrigo is Catholic, and states that Sodden converted from Orthodox Judaism to Catholicism when she was 20 years old. He states also that Sodden did not want to be on life support, and that “she didn’t want to end up like this.” He consulted with two priests prior to making the decision to remove life support.

 However, on March 18, 2014 a Brooklyn Supreme Court Judge determined that Esther Feigenbaum, Sodden’s sister, would replace Arrigo as Sodden’s health care proxy. Feigenbaum claims that Sodden never converted, and that shutting down life support is “anathema to Orthodox Jewish belief.” The Court indicated that part of its decision to divest Arrigo of his role as health care proxy rested on the fact that Arrigo was absent from Court on the day of the proceedings. Arrigo maintains that he did not know he was supposed to appear.

Read more here.

Supreme Court to Address Standards for Intellectual Competence

The Supreme Court of the United States barred the execution of intellectually disabled individuals in 2002. Soon the Court will address the standard that a State should use to determine whether an individual is intellectually disabled. There are ten states that use IQ scores to assess the intellectual competence of convicts, including Florida. Typically, in these states, a person with an IQ of 70 or higher is considered intellectually competent. Some psychologists maintain that using such a bright-line standard is scientifically outdated, and that IQ tests are not precise enough to make such a determination. The Court will hear arguments on the issue in Hall v. Florida, on March 3, 2014.

Read more here.

Assisted Suicide Case Dismissed: Pennsylvania v. Mancini

A nurse named Barbara Mancini was accused of homicide in 2013. Allegedly, she handed her father a bottle of morphine with the intent to assist in his suicide. Her father, Joseph Yourshaw, 93 years old, suffered from end stage renal disease and was in home hospice.  However, the case has been dismissed. Judge Jacqueline Russell stated in her decision that the Pennsylvania Attorney General did not prove that Ms. Mancini gave Mr. Yourshaw the morphine with the intent to assist in his suicide, and that Ms. Mancini could have intended solely to alleviate his suffering. Some believe that though assisted suicide is legal in five states only, this decision “is the latest in a series of recent developments signaling the reluctance of courts” and legislatures to criminalize medical treatment that “may hasten death.”

Read more here.

VT Bill Streamlines Involuntary Commitment Process, But May Not Protect Privacy

The bill to streamline the involuntary commitment process for mental health patients in Vermont is not finished yet. However, some are concerned that the bill does not sufficiently protect the rights of patients committed involuntarily under the new, streamlined process. The head of Vermont Legal Aid’s Mental Health Law Project, Jack McCullough, requested that the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee add language to the bill that would preclude a patient’s name from being added to the federal registry’s list of individuals who should not own firearms, at least until a preliminary finding of mental illness was adjudicated fully. Lawmakers indicated that they would not add the requested language in this bill, and would rather deal with that issue in separate legislation.

Read more here.

India Charges Woman on 12-year Hunger Strike with Attempted Suicide

Irom Sharmila was recently charged with attempted suicide in India, arising “from a 2006 protest she attended in New Delhi.”  Ms. Sharmila has been on a hunger strike for the last 12 years, in protest of an Indian law that allows troops to shoot and kill suspected rebels and authorizes warrantless arrests of suspected militants in conflict areas.  Ms. Sharmila has not voluntarily eaten since November of 2000, however she has been subjected to mandatory nasogastric feeding since three days after beginning her hunger strike.    If convicted of attempted suicide, she could serve up to one year in prison.  Read more here.

Professor Questions Drug Study Recruiting at University of Minnesota

Professor Carl Elliot claims that the consent documents for two schizophrenic patients enrolled in a drug study at the University of Minnesota are exactly the same.  If Professor Elliot’s allegation is true, consent may not have been properly obtained for the patients’ involvement in the drug study.  The consent questionnaire involves several open-ended questions, which the two patients answered in exactly the same way.  Professor Elliot points out that such an occurrence is “improbable” and raises concerns about the university’s examination of the patients as it relates to their ability to consent to involvement in the drug study.  Mark Rotenburg, an attorney for the university, disputes the allegations.  However, the university’s methods for recruiting patients were previously questioned in 2004, following the suicide of Dan Markingson.   Read more here.

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In other news, ethical concerns related to another study conducted at the University of Minnesota, involving AstraZeneca’s Seroquel, are also gaining attention on the internet.  Read more here.

Competency and Criminal Defendants: Direct Brain Interventions

What if defendants currently incompetent to stand trial can be made competent through “direct brain interventions?” The possibility is again leading to questions about whether courts should ever order defendants to be made competent for trial through involuntary surgical or drug treatment. These are just a few of the issues raised by the possibility of “direct brain interventions.” Read more here.