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Why Involuntary Hospitalization Laws Need to Be Reevaluated

The Latin phrase “civis romanus sum” (classical Latin: “I am (a) Roman citizen”) is a phrase used in Cicero’s “In Verrem” as a plea for the legal rights of a Roman citizen. When traveling across the Roman Empire, safety was said to be guaranteed to anyone who declared, “civis romanus sum.”

On June 29 of last year, I was brought to an ER in Newport, Rhode Island after becoming uncharacteristically lost while visiting from Cape Cod for the weekend. My parents had called the police after not having heard from me for several hours as my phone had died. A CT scan revealed a possible bleed in my brain and I agreed to be transferred to a nearby hospital, and admitted.

Further imaging, conducted soon after I arrived (albeit without my knowledge or awareness, let alone consent), revealed a developmental venous anomaly and associated cavernoma, an abnormal cluster of capillaries and even tinier veins, called venules, that periodically bleed, forming a popcorn-like lesion in the brain, in my case the cerebellum, with very thin walls containing blood of various ages. I, however, was not told of this, nor did I learn about it until three months later, after having sought a referral to a local neurologist.

Unfortunately, this same imaging revealed no signs of an acute bleed, and it was therefore decided, erroneously, as it turns out, blood leaking from the cavernoma was not the cause of my bizarre behavior (most notably, confusion, as noted in the police’s incident report). Things quickly took a turn for the worst. Within a few hours, when based on a conversation the doctor had with one of my co-workers, unbeknownst to me at the time, whose business card I just happened to have in my wallet, I suddenly found myself involuntarily hospitalized for bipolar disorder, despite at age 49, having had no past history of mental illness. And despite a statement from my family to the contrary, which said I had “no formal psychiatric history” and was “high-functioning” (employed, postgraduate degree). Also, per their report, with no history of “psychosis, mania or disorganization.”

In fact, the doctor also spoke with another one of my co-workers, who was also asked the very same question, whether or not I normally have weeklong periods of “ups” and “downs.” This second co-worker said no. This was entered into the hospital record as “co-worker one states that Kristen normally has weeklong periods of ‘ups’ and ‘downs,'” but no mention was made at all of the second co-worker’s ‘statement to the contrary, that I do not have such periods.

From then on, I was repeatedly pressured to take a powerful antipsychotic also used to treat schizophrenia, which I fortunately refused. Along with a blood pressure lowering medication, my blood pressure had become atypically elevated, no doubt due to having suddenly found myself like Kara Thrace in “The Farm” (the fifth episode of the second season of “Battlestar Galactica”), trapped inside a hospital room from which I was unable to escape.

Eight months later, I requested and received a copy of my hospital records, which included, in detail, my co-worker’s false statement. With the exception of one comment about my professionalism and dedication to our guests at the inn where we then both worked, nothing in his statement was true. Nor did the doctor make any attempt whatsoever to corroborate or verify anything he said, despite having also spoken with the other co-worker he mentioned.

In accordance with Rhode Island law, involuntary hospitalization requires evidence of imminent likelihood of serious harm by reason of mental disability. Neither of which I demonstrated, except as recorded in the false testimony of my co-worker, who inferred in his false statement I had bipolar. As a result, in my view at least, it instead constituted not only false imprisonment, but it was also an egregious violation of my civil rights.

According to the 2017 UN Mental Health and Human Rights Report:

Forced institutionalization violates the right to personal liberty and security, understood as freedom from confinement of the body and freedom from injury to one’s bodily or mental integrity, respectively. It amounts to a violation of the right to live free from torture and ill-treatment, and from exploitation, violence, and abuse, and of the right to personal integrity. States parties should repeal legislation and policies that allow or perpetuate involuntary (hospitalization and) commitment, including its imposition as a threat, and should provide effective remedies and redress for victims.

My intent in writing this article is to exhort readers, and especially lawmakers, to do as the UN Mental Health and Human Rights Report suggests, work to repeal (or at the very least, seriously reevaluate, in light of what happened to me and could just as easily have happened to anyone) legislation and policies that allow or perpetuate involuntary hospitalization and/or commitment, especially in the absence of due process.

Original photo by author

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