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Bill could triple Utah’s involuntary emergency mental health hold times

 The Utah Capitol is illuminated as night falls, May 28, 2021.
Brian Albers
The Utah Capitol is illuminated as night falls, May 28, 2021.

People who are involuntarily placed in a mental health facility because of an emergency could be held there for up to three days under a bill moving through the Utah Legislature. Right now, it’s capped at 24 hours.

HB 363, which passed a Senate committee Tuesday, also expands when someone could be involuntarily committed. Right now, they have to be a danger to themselves or others. Under this legislation, someone whose mental health is preventing them from taking care of themselves could be involuntarily committed.

“This bill will help us better help patients who are severely mentally ill, particularly those suffering from a condition called anosognosia where they don't believe they're ill,” said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy. “This will give clinicians just a little bit extra time to evaluate those patients.”

Eliason said it would avoid committing patients long-term when they don’t need to be.

“In our current process, if they're in that same position, that physician's choice is going to be to move to full civil commitment, which is going to be much more restrictive,” he said. “The individual loses the right to own a firearm. So this gives an additional option to a physician to hold somebody and just extend that emergency commitment for an additional up to 48 hours instead of moving to full civil commitment.”

But disability advocates argued this would put people in facilities unnecessarily and not really help them in the long term.

Nate Crippes, an attorney with the Disability Law Center, said it would allow “almost anyone with serious mental illness” to be committed, even if they aren’t a danger to themselves or others.

“At its core, involuntary commitment deprives the person of their fundamental rights and freedom,” he said. “We hear about the very real psychological and emotional toll it takes on a person. So it's really only to be used as an absolute last resort.”

Sherri Wittwer, with Peers Empowering Peers Utah, a mental health advocacy group, argued the bill was focusing on the wrong things and the money spent to keep people in mental health facilities for two extra days would be better spent on helping people pay rent.

“People are frustrated with the mental health system and with getting care for their loved ones, but this bill does not address homelessness or the needs of those with serious mental illness,” Wittwer said. “The issue is after that stay, we don't have a robust home and community-based services or housing for people, so they continue to cycle through multiple systems.”

Eliason said homelessness is a real issue, but this bill is not meant to solve all problems the state has.

The legislation still needs to be approved by the full Senate before moving to the governor’s desk.

Copyright 2022 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Sonja Hutson is a politics and government reporter at KUER. She’s been reporting on politics ever since the 10th grade, when she went to so many school board meetings the district set up a press table for her. Before coming to Utah, Sonja spent four years at KQED in San Francisco where she covered everything from wildfires to the tech industry. When she’s not working, you can find her skiing, camping, or deeply invested in a 1000 piece puzzle.