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We Can’t Use Involuntary Hospitalization to ‘Save’ Disabled People During Hurricanes

Hurricane Isaias has got me thinking about what is going to happen to all the homeless people, mentally ill and substance abusers on the streets. Many communities offer them refuge in homeless shelters and general population shelters, but in Florida during Hurricane Irma in 2017, they did something I never heard of. They committed the homeless to psychiatric hospitals against their will for refusing to go to the shelter. They did this under the guise of the Baker Act, which allows for involuntary examination — what some call emergency or involuntary commitment — and can be initiated by judges, law enforcement officials, physicians or mental health professionals. There must be evidence that the person possibly has a mental illness.) When challenged about the legality of this move, the government leaders said by the time the 72-hour hold limit is reached, the storm will have passed and we can just let them out. So, no court hearing. So basically, they were admitting to breaking the law. As if involuntary commitment to a psychiatric hospital is not traumatic or does not have a lasting impact.

This made me incredibly angry. At first, you think “better safe than sorry,” but then I began to think about the implications. Someone has been given the option and they refuse. They pose no threat to others. And the assumption that they must be mentally ill if they choose to stay on the streets. The reality was that many people were in danger and still chose to stay in low-lying areas or mobile homes, or on the island, and yet it seems no one saw a problem with them staying in their homes. So, why are we treating the mentally ill differently? No one came and got the people out of mobile homes who refused to leave even though a Category 4 storm was about to hit Florida. We knew they were in jeopardy, but we did not feel compelled to place them in an institution. Why? There was clearly a threat to their well-being, and they were in imminent danger. Why did we not go in and save them from themselves?

The reason why is we take a paternalistic approach with disabled people. We decide that we know better, and they do not have agency over themselves and should not because they are somehow, by nature, incapable. According to Kyle Ingram, paternalism is: “The idea that we know better. But we don’t. Every time we make a decision that diminishes another person’s options because we think it’s too hard or too dangerous, we rob that person of opportunity. If we do it because we think that person has limitations due to a physical or mental condition, that’s frankly illegal discrimination.”

We do not have the right to discriminate against someone who you think is incompetent. People living with mental illness are competent and capable people who deserve respect and dignity. It is unfair to say we know better for them. As a mentally ill person, I have had people assume I was incapable of caring for myself. My ex-roommate went so far as to suggest I should move into a group home. I currently live alone and care very well for myself, but she made assumptions about me and thought she knew better for me. That was not the case.

I am not saying it would not be safer for homeless people to be in some sort of shelter in the case of Hurricane Isaias; I am talking about violating their civil rights and discriminating against them without any consideration as to the long-term effects of being institutionalized, especially against your will. I am not sure which is the better option if someone refuses shelter, but the Baker Act should not be our go-to even if we are willing to institute it across the board to every person who is in harm’s way. Locking people in psychiatric hospitals should not be our only option; our leaders can be more creative and humane than that.

Photo by Shashank Sahay on Unsplash

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