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Civil rights group criticizes proposed changes to Mental Health Act

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Proposed changes to the Mental Health Act will make it easier to institutionalize individuals suffering from mental illness and to force them to undergo treatment. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association is troubled that our provincial government wants to significantly expand the criteria for involuntary committal and for keeping patients institutionalized.

Under current law, individuals can be involuntarily committed provided two doctors certify that they are suffering from a mental disorder, require treatment and need to be institutionalized for their own protection or the protection of others.

Bill 22, the Mental Health Amendment Act, 1998 would expand these criteria to allow involuntary committal simply to prevent “the person’s or patient’s substantial mental or physical deterioration”.

Bill 22 would also permit the director of a mental health facility (or a review panel) to detain a patient if there is a significant risk that the patient, if discharged, will fail to follow a treatment plan. (Under the law, patients have a right to request an independent assessment of their detention by a review panel. The BCCLA has regularly supplied volunteers to sit on such panels for more than three decades.)

Existing provisions in the Mental Health Act that permit parents or guardians of children and youth under the age of 16 to “voluntarily” commit their children for treatment are also of concern to the BCCLA. A more reasonable approach would be to use the test under the Infants Act to assess whether children are competent to make decisions independently.

Bill 22’s major omission is its failure to require that involuntary patients receive independent legal advice about their rights. At present, the law requires mental health facility staff only to inform patients of their right to have their committal assessed by a review panel. Given that facility staff’s duty is to treat patients, not to provide information and advice about their rights, this creates an unacceptable conflict. The Mental Health Law Program at Riverview should be expanded to cover all mental health facilities in B.C.

Mental illness poses real challenges for society and the families of the mentally ill. Bill 22 appears to ignore the concerns of those most directly affected by the law those who struggle with mental illness and their support groups. As an example, despite its long history of public service in this area, the BCCLA was only informed of the proposed changes less than two weeks before they were introduced in the legislature.