Involuntary commitment is a legal procedure by which a person is placed in the custody of the State Department of Mental Health for treatment. This is done only if necessary, and after every effort is made to provide treatment for the person on a voluntary basis. In order to meet the criteria for involuntary commitment, there must be clear and convincing evidence that the person is mentally ill and poses a real and present threat of substantial harm to self or others. Other required elements are that the person is unable to make a rational decision regarding the need for treatment, and that without such treatment, he or she will continue to suffer mental distress. The evidence brought forth by the petitioner must include personal knowledge of specific acts or behavior which signifies a real or present danger.
The petitioner is the individual who goes to AltaPointe Health (offices in Talladega and Sylacauga) and asks that measures be taken regarding a mentally ill person, of at least 19 years of age. This is done in the county where the respondent is currently located. The petitioner is usually a family member, but any person may file a petition seeking commitment of another, provided that all the elements are met. Once the petition is filed and probable cause is determined, the patient may be involuntarily confined in a designated mental health facility. A hearing is then set, with notice given to all parties concerned, including the respondent. At the hearing, testimony is heard from all parties, and the Probate Judge determines whether the criteria for commitment have been met. Attorneys are appointed for both petitioner and respondent and all hearings are generally open to the public.
If the criteria for commitment are met, then the Court will order inpatient treatment. Any treatment ordered must be the least restrictive alternative available and will take place at a designated mental health facility. The length of treatment is determined by the treating physician, and may be up to 150 days before a subsequent hearing on the merits will be necessary. If the criteria for commitment is not met, then the petition will be dismissed. At no time may the Court order treatment for substance abuse alone.
The purpose of involuntary commitment is to provide psychiatric treatment for mentally ill individuals who have become a danger to themselves or others, and are refusing voluntary treatment. However, the Court is ever mindful of the serious deprivation of liberty which this process necessarily involves. The Probate Judge will always take the least restrictive measures to get help for a person with mental illness.