Press Releases

Supreme Court Gives Incremental Victory to Persons With Mental Illness in Olmstead Decision

Statement by Laurie M. Flynn, Executive Director, The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill

Jun 22 1999

Arlington, VA - The Supreme Court's decision in Olmstead v. L.C. provides an incremental victory for persons suffering from mental illness by affirming the presumption for treatment in community settings under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). NAMI especially is pleased that the Court's 6-3 majority followed the moderate course which we urged in our amici curiae brief filed with the American Psychiatric Association.

Absent justification, the Court has ruled that "institutional isolation" of persons with disabilities represents discrimination based on "unwarranted assumptions" and which "severely diminishes the everyday life activities of individuals."

This principle is now settled as a matter of law. The decision represents a solid step forward for those who have been discriminated against by being unjustifiably deprived of the opportunity to live in the community. At the same time, the Court has left open two major issues for the future.

In addressing state discretion to maintain a range of institutional and community facilities and services, the Court noted that the ADA could be fulfilled if there was "a comprehensive, effectively working plan for placing qualified persons with mental disabilities in less restrictive settings and a waiting list that moved at a reasonable pace." This language provides a rudimentary standard by which to measure state systems, but "a reasonable pace" for community placement is undefined.

The Court also did not address the level of services that may be necessary to ensure adequate treatment in a community--although the opinion includes some language that seems to prohibit placement in "an inappropriate setting, such as a homeless shelter." In other words, the decision does not guarantee that states will develop systems of community care that effectively address the needs of people with severe mental illnesses. Advocates still will face challenges at the local, state and federal levels to ensure that people with severe mental illnesses receive the kind of services and supports they need to live safely in the community.