States in Crisis:
The Grassroots Response
NAMI Maryland drafted legislation this year to change the commitment standards to remove "clear and imminent danger" as a criterion for an emergency petition and to introduce a gravely disabled commitment standard and a standard for significant damage to property. On March 19, our bill was soundly defeated in the Senate committee and was withdrawn from the House committee, where the vote would have been close.
Maryland has one of the strictest standards for obtaining an emergency petition for involuntary admission in the country and does not have any provision for outpatient commitment. Back in 1987 and 1988 NAMI Maryland tried to change the laws for the dangerousness standard and to implement outpatient commitment. We were unsuccessful and decided instead to concentrate on building coalitions with our other mental health advocacy organizations who did not agree with us on the need to change the laws. We worked in coalitions on changing our parity laws and in advocating for the Mental Hygiene Administration budget.
When we surveyed our membership through the years, problems with the commitment process continued to be the most pressing issue identified. We started to look at the issue again back in 1997. This year we have a strong treatment subcommittee that decided to try again with legislation. We worked closely on this with the Treatment Advocacy Center. They have given us legal advice on both the drafting of the bill and in answering questions from legislators and others about the implications of the bill. We used the TAC Model Law as a guide in developing what to include in our bill.
The process has been very positive for NAMI MD. We brought attention to an issue that is of great concern to our members. Last year there were several instances, across the state, of young men with a mental illness, but not medicated, killing their mothers and one case of a mentally ill man killing two police officers. No one else was willing to take on the issue of the inability to get treatment for a person before it was too late. This, along with the budget problems, allowed us to mobilize our grassroots advocacy in a way we have not done in several years. Approximately 20 people testified at the hearings in favor of the bill, some telling tragic stories of how the existing law affected their family. We used this bill as an opportunity to get to know more of our legislators and to involve more of our members in the legislative process.
As a result of our efforts we have made new friends. The Washington Post ran a very supportive editorial. Read it at Washington Post Editorial (March 2, 2002).
The Maryland Psychiatric Society and Maryland Suburban Psychiatric Society both came out in favor of the bill and testified. Letters of support were sent by the Maryland Sheriffs' Association, a well known psychiatrist from the University of Maryland, a couple of organizations that serve the homeless, and others.
Those that opposed us were still forced to look at an issue that they have been willing to ignore for years. Our treatment committee is going to rest up for a few weeks and then start to decide where we go from here.
Worth mentioning is our public policy committee has taken advantage of technology over the past couple of years. We use e-mail extensively for communication, AND we have an Web page for the committee where we track our review and actions on the bills that may be of interest in the legislative session. See the NAMI MD Public Policy Committee page on the NAMI MD Web site.
Also, we use the Maryland General Assembly website to download and track bills. We are working hard to grow the public policy committee to involve more of our members so that we will be strong enough to tackle more issues.