Lost in the madhouse: Three stories of involuntary commitment

Erik* was not familiar with the expression “Baker Act’d” the night a college psychologist came to his dorm room, woke him up, and took him to a nearby hospital. In fact, Erik didn’t realize anything was wrong until police handcuffed him, put him in the back of a police cruiser, and took him to a mental health facility at the county jail.

“It wasn’t until a woman told me to go into a room, take off all my clothes, and put on this gown, that I asked, ‘Wait, what’s going on?’” Erik, an engineer who asked not to be identified by his real name, told The Daily Caller. “She was like, ‘You’ve been Baker Act’d.’”

In the two weeks since Jared Loughner opened fire at a Tucson meet-and-greet hosted by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, mental health experts and pundits have argued that legislators need to make it easier to commit people like Loughner to psychiatric treatment.

“What responsibility does an institution have to the wider community when it has identified a deeply disturbed individual?” Asked psychiatrists Jeffrey Geller and Sally Satel in a USA Today editorial. Their answer: quite a bit. Satel and Geller argue that schools and businesses should be legally required to report potentially dangerous employees or students to “the medical director of the appropriate public health jurisdiction” for analysis, and — if necessary — “involuntary commitment.”

In most states, it’s easy to have someone committed. In 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in O’Connor v. Kenneth Donaldson, in which a Florida hospital held Donaldson against his will for 15 years. As a result, no state with an involuntary commitment law can hold a person for longer than 72 hours without a court order. Ironically, holding them for less than 72 hours is as easy as telling a paramedic, doctor or police officer that a person possibly poses a threat to themselves or others.

Which is why people like Erik, who was sound asleep when a school counselor determined he posed a possible danger to himself or others, sometimes end up temporarily incarcerated with the mentally ill.

I asked on Facebook and Twitter for stories from people who had been involuntarily committed. Erik, who was committed in 2008 while he was a student at a private liberal arts college in Florida, was one of several people who shared his story.

The day before he was committed, Erik took acid for the first time. “The next day it made me think about stuff. I was a general business major and new to the U.S., and I started getting really down about where my life was going,” Erik said in a phone interview.

“I think it was a natural, day-after-you-did-acid kind of feeling, but I guess my friends were worried about me. So after I went to sleep, they called the school psychologist and asked, ‘Hey, our friend’s depressed. What should we do?’”

Erik was shaken awake around 11 p.m. that night to find the school psychologist, his friends and a campus security officer in his room.

“She said she just wanted to talk,” Erik said. “I told her I was just feeling down. I didn’t even know that involuntary commitment was a possibility.”

*All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the privacy of the three men who volunteered to speak to The Daily Caller.