Shortly before Tropical Storm Irene struck Vermont in late August of 2011, an episode of mania struck Marla Simpson.
She suffers from bi-polar disorder and recalls waking up in the Vermont State Hospital. "I was never arrested for anything, never convicted of anything but yet, treated like a criminal," she said. "They considered me a threat to myself because I had walked naked down the street, because I thought the apocalypse had come."
"We've been in a crisis for a long time in our mental health system and I think that Irene exacerbated that," said Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham County). Sen. White says Irene's closure of the state hospital and the associated loss of bed-space highlighted the slow pace of review in the system. Patients deemed to be a threat can be held against their will for three days before doctors need to file additional paperwork. If paperwork is filed, the detained patient's stay can be continued while all sides wait for a series of hearings. "Currently they can languish for a long time before there's ever a judicial review about whether they should have treatment and what that treatment should be," she said.
White wants to see changes -- most notably, requiring a family court review of the patient's detention after five days. Right now that is just voluntary. "Really what it's about is getting timely access to judicial review," White said.
"We are very concerned about the bill -- we are concerned in a number of respects," said Jack McCullough with Vermont Legal Aid's Mental Health Law Project. He says the proposal might increase costs and lead to a rubber stamp framework. "I think it's going to result in a pretty routine approval of the detention." he said.
The average commitment lasts about 50 days in Vermont. Dr. Sandy Steingard of Burlington's HowardCenter says there are no easy answers. "I think we should all have reasons for concern. I just don't think this is anything that should be done lightly," Steingard said.
Of the nearly 1,500 cases of involuntary commitment or treatment last year only about 64 ultimately exhausted their legal options. Many who initially fight help end up embracing it. Steingard says that statistic may be misleading though, as the process can be coercive by its own nature.
Marla Simpson -- who is also a domestic violence survivor -- says that's the case. "The kind of terror from being restrained and forcibly drugged was on the same level of psychological terror as being beaten up," she said. Simpson complains that when she has been involuntarily medicated, it's not with her usual drugs which work. She says when she's in trouble she needs a kind ear.
Proponents of the bill say bigger mental health questions will pop up at the legislature, but see this measure as one that can't do more harm.