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Is new gun law yet another abuse of the Florida Mental Health Act (Baker Act)?

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A new gun law passed by the Florida Legislature and submitted to be signed by Governor Rick Scott would restrict gun ownership rights of persons who voluntarily consent to treatment under the Florida Mental Health Act, known as the Baker Act. The Baker Act was named after Florida State Representative Maxine Baker, who in the early 1970s created the act to reform Florida's laws to protect the civil rights of those deemed to be mentally ill. Prior to the passage of that act residents could be involuntarily forced into treatment by judicial decree, without mental health professionals having performed an assessment to justify claims of mental infirmity and danger posed by the individual.

People could be committed merely because they had enemies or persecutors who wished to defame or silence them by having them placed in a mental institution. This has historically been done to people who are physically or sexually abused, with accusations of mental impairment submitted by the perpetrators who wish to portray the victim as psychotic or delusional and not credible in their claims about the perpetrators. It has also been done in America and other countries to political dissidents or those who challenge the ruling powers in some manner. Having someone committed to a mental hospital and labeled mentally ill and a threat to oneself or others is a serious matter that has major societal implications and is a process that is vulnerable to abuse. Human rights watchdogs such as Amnesty International and the Scientology-aligned Citizens Commission on Human Rights, as well as patient advocates, have fought to ensure due process and prevent abuses of the system.

Under current Florida law, a person can either voluntarily submit to evaluation or be involuntarily taken to be assessed at a psychiatric facility. The involuntary process involving a judicial order can be initiated by law enforcement officers, social workers, physicians, and licensed mental health professionals. A person can then be held for up to 72 hours for observation and assessment. If that assessment does not show the person meets criteria for commitment then the person is to be released, and is free to either pursue treatment or not based upon their own free will choice. If the person is deemed to meet criteria for commitment (criteria which includes presenting a threat to harm self or others) then the person may voluntarily sign a consent for treatment or else a legal process will occur in which the State seeks involuntary commitment to treatment that the individual may challenge with the assistance of an attorney.

The new gun law would affect those who are deemed by the evaluation to meet the criteria for commitment and who agree voluntarily to be committed indefinitely for treatment. The typical pattern is that people are involuntarily brought in for evaluation and then voluntarily consent to treatment. According to Miami-Dade Court Judge Steven Leifman, only 1% of the 115,000 people processed under the Baker Act in 2012 were involuntarily committed. The others signed a consent for treatment and would not automatically have their gun rights restricted. While some mental health campaigners such as Leifman believe the new law could help prevent suicides, other mental health advocates fear that it could discourage people from agreeing to treatment. Many people who receive mental health care are survivors of trauma, abuse, or domestic violence, and some own guns for self-defense, fearing harm from their attackers. If they learn that by consenting to treatment they still lose their right to have a firearm for self-defense they might not volunteer for treatment.

Assuming that the report that only 1% of those involuntarily evaluated are involuntarily committed is accurate, then the new law could trigger a sudden jump in the number of those who refuse treatment and thus initiate a legal process where lawyers and judges become involved in the decision about legally coercing treatment. There does not appear to be any comprehensive empirical data showing that the failure to take gun rights away from people who voluntarily submit to treatment is fostering gun violence or suicides. In theory, when people are released from the hospital they are stable and not in a state where they would carry out violence toward self or others. Psychological states are transient - anyone could have a distressing episode, such as following a major trauma, where they could be treated for a mental health diagnosis and meet criteria for commitment, then stabilize and function normally. Taking away a basic constitutional right permanently due to a temporary episode of incapacity is something that people who care about our rights and freedoms naturally question. Removing the right of gun ownership would ideally be something to consider on a case-by-case basis with due process, since the vast majority of people who own guns and happen to get committed for psychiatric treatment do not use guns to harm themselves or assault others.

According to state data, in the year 2009 the number of involuntary evaluations in Florida had reached over 136,000, close to double the number of a decade earlier. With so many people being brought involuntarily for evaluation why are nearly all of them deemed to meet criteria for commitment suddenly consenting to voluntarily remain in the hospital for treatment for an indefinite time? Based upon this writer's own experience as a licensed mental health professional dealing with thousands of people seeking and receiving treatment, it has become apparent that patients are frequently not properly informed and advised of their rights. They are often rushed through a stack of forms to sign and don't get to fully read them, and they are led or allowed to believe that they don't have the option of rejecting admission for treatment after the evaluation. Since they have already been forced to participate in the evaluation they assume that their freedom to reject treatment has already been overruled. They are also not properly informed of the option of getting treatment privately outside of the evaluating institution. Mental hospitals generally offer limited treatment resources and lack innovative and holistic therapy resources. The hospital environment itself is usually restrictive and depressing, and being surrounded by that environment with other disturbed people is not ideal - it may actually be counter-therapeutic. There are also people who exploit the system, such as those who volunteer for commitment to avoid implications of involuntary commitment and those who feign mental illness in order to get prescribed psychiatric drugs which they abuse. Reform of the system would mean taking steps to improve the integrity of the system itself and the skills and integrity of those who work within the system.

Prominent researchers have discovered that the dominant treatment paradigms applied in psychiatric institutions tend to perpetuate mental illness rather than supporting recovery. Drugs and behavior modification have come to dominate a field that has even applied to itself the term "behavioral health." Judging health based upon behavior is a seriously flawed approach. Using drugs and behavioral conditioning methods to control behavioral symptoms has not led to lasting success in helping the psychologically disturbed. Only approaches that seek to balance the body, mind, emotions, and spirit are likely to have lasting impact, since the behaviors are being produced and influenced by people's thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and energetic and biochemical states. Self-regulation via meditation, mindfulness, cognitive restructuring and reframing, exercise, balanced diet and nutrition, avoidance of drugs, positive social support, creative outlets, stress relief, and spiritual connections can foster healing and recovery. Fostering dependency on synthetic chemicals and external behavioral consequences merely supports ongoing disempowerment. People with psychological difficulties are already dealing with disempowerment due to traumas, stresses, and disappointments in their lives. They need skills and resources for empowering themselves and releasing traumas.

The preoccupation with restricting gun rights from those deemed mentally ill diverts attention away from serious flaws and abuses in the mental health treatment system. The treatment system relies greatly on drugs, many of which have been associated with triggering the psychiatric symptoms they are supposed to prevent, and often neglects truly addressing the causes of people's psychological distress. Legal due process should be available to anyone who is being threatened with having their freedoms restricted. A blanket restriction of gun rights for people committed to treatment under the Florida Mental Health Act (Baker Act) is not likely to improve public health or safety, it may further burden the court system with involuntary commitment cases, and it sets a troublesome precedent in regard to civil liberties, which are already abused by the mental health system.




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