WILMINGTON - Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation Tuesday significantly reforming the way emergency mental health screenings are conducted, modernizing Delaware's involuntary commitment laws and providing people with a wider array of appropriate treatment options.
Previously, Delaware law allowed anyone to sign a complaint to start the involuntary mental health detainment process, which involved a police officer handcuffing a person and transporting them to a hospital emergency department, where any licensed physician could sign an order to detain that person for up to 24 hours for an evaluation. Critics noted that under that process, any licensed physician could mean that a podiatrist or ophthalmologist - physicians who may have very little training in mental health - could have a person held involuntarily.
The state Department of Health and Social Services noted there are about 3,000 involuntary detainments for mental health evaluations each year, or more than eight per day.
The legislation, which passed the General Assembly unanimously last month, would update the involuntary commitment laws by allowing a psychiatrist or credentialed mental health screener to evaluate a person anywhere and then transport that person to the most appropriate location for evaluation or treatment in the most appropriate and least restrictive manner. The credentialed mental health screeners will be available to go to the person in crisis at home, work or hospital emergency department, evaluate them and, if necessary, hold them involuntarily for a mental health evaluation that will involve a psychiatrist.
In addition to providing people with a wider array of appropriate treatment options, the law will free law enforcement from unnecessary transportation duties and long waits in hospital waiting rooms. It also expands the number and kind of professional staff who are credentialed to involuntarily detain someone for a mental health evaluation. Additionally, DHSS will now pay for voluntary mental health assessments instead of only covering involuntary admissions. This removes the financial incentive to institutionalize people.
Gov. Markell also signed House Joint Resolution 17, a companion piece of legislation that establishes a study group to assess Delaware's civil mental health laws. Rep. Earl G. Jaques said he introduced the measure when several legal concerns were voiced about the involuntary commitment bill - especially when it came to giving immunity to a group of workers yet to be identified.