The Mentally Ill

February 13, 1987

Report Outline
Special Focus


At a Homeless Shelter in Washington. D.C., a Psychiatrist Examines a Woman Who Has Just Come in off the Street from a Cold Winter Day. He Describes Her as Psychotic, with Marginal Intelligence And “a Very Trusting, Naive” Personality. Letting Her Return to the Streets, He Says, Would Be “Like Putting a Rabbit in with the Dogs.” However, He Adds That Current Law Provides No Grounds Upon Which to Hospitalize the Woman, because she is not dangerous.

The plight of this homeless woman is one example of the unintended effects of a movement of free the mentally ill from state mental institutions and to protect their civil rights. The three great thrusts of this movement toward “deinstitutionalization” were the introduction of behavior-altering drugs in mental hospitals in the mid-1950s, federal legislation in the next decade making community care a goal of national policy, and a series of court cases in the 1970s enlarging the rights of mental patients.

In the aftermath of these cases most states revised their laws to prevent persons from being committed involuntarily to a mental hospital unless they could be proven dangerous to themselves or other. Because mentally ill people living on the streets tend to resist hospitalization but are not necessarily dangerous. “many have been condemned to die with their rights on.” said a critic of prevailing mental health law.

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