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Health commission to study Virginia's mental health system after deadly shooting

A commission created to study Virginia's mental health system will examine the criteria used to force treatment of mentally unstable people.

Virginia's involuntary commitment laws are among several issues a special mental health commission of the Supreme Court of Virginia plans to tackle at a meeting Friday. The Commission on Mental Health Law Reform was created last year and has been working on a mental health reform package for the state's 2008 legislative session.

The topic gained urgency in April, after Virginia Tech student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty at Tech before taking his own life. Cho had been ordered into involuntary outpatient treatment in 2005, after a special justice found that he presented "an imminent danger to himself as a result of mental illness."

Most states do not use the word "imminent" in conjunction with danger or harm, making it easier to force treatment.

But the commission task force that has been examining the issue of commitment remains sharply divided over whether the imminent danger standard should be broadened, said task force member Pete Earley, an author who chronicled his own attempts to help his mentally ill son in the 2007 Pulitzer Prize finalist "Crazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness."

Earley believes Virginia's standard is too strict and prevents people from getting help until they hurt themselves or someone else. Earley said he was forced to lie - telling a social worker his son had threatened to kill him when he had not - to get him admitted to a hospital.

"What's ridiculous about this is we're talking about changing the bar to let people intervene and put them into treatment," Earley said. "Just by lowering the standard a little doesn't mean that someone's going to be abandoned for years and years in an institution."

But others on the task force are concerned that changing the standard will infringe on people's civil rights and lead to warehousing of the mentally ill, Earley said.

Mark Bodner, a special justice who heads up the commitment task force, said he and two other judges in Fairfax, just south of Washington, D.C., handle between 650 and 700 involuntary commitment cases each year. He said the current commitment language has not been a problem.

"I think the standard works well," Bodner said. "To me, the language demonstrates the gravity of the situation."

University of Virginia law professor Richard Bonnie, who chairs the commission, said the panel also plans to focus on facilitating psychiatric advance directives - legal documents the mentally ill draft to determine how they would like to be treated if they are ever committed involuntarily.

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