Lost in the madhouse: Three stories of involuntary commitment

Mike Riggs Contributor
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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.

The counselor asked Erik if he thought he was a danger to himself or others. When he said no, the counselor told Erik “we needed to go to a hospital so that a real doctor could ask the questions.” Erik was kept waiting at the hospital until 4 a.m., when a doctor asked Erik the same questions he’d been asked on campus. Was he a threat to himself or others? Erik said no. “Ten minutes later a police officer came in and said, ‘I have to place you in handcuffs,’” Erik said. “I asked him why, and he said, ‘It’s just my job.’”

Under the Baker Act, Florida’s 72-hour involuntary commitment law, Erik was to be committed to a psychiatric center attached to the county jail.

After changing into a facility gown and giving up his personal belongings, Erik took a seat in the empty lobby of the county jail’s mental health facility. It was 5 a.m. Three hours later, a guard walked into the lobby and asked Erik why he wasn’t asleep in bed.

“I told him I was waiting for a doctor, and he said, ‘No, you have to be in bed, you have to be in bed,’” Erik said. The guard escorted him to a room where several other men were sleeping, told him to go to sleep, then locked the door. It was approximately 7:50 a.m. Shortly after 8 a.m., the door flew open and the same guard instructed everyone in the small room to wake up. Two hours later, Erik finally saw a doctor.

“It was in and out. I went in and the guy had a notepad ready. One or two questions in, he asks, ‘Why are you here?’ I told him, ‘I don’t know! Can I go? I think I’m normal.’ He told me, ‘Alright, I’ll see what I can do.” Erik would not see the doctor again.

Ignorant of how long the facility could keep him against his will, Erik tried to make conversation with the nurses and other patients. “I pretty much talked to everyone you could talk to,” he said. “A few people were like, crazy-crazy, but most people were just kinda crazy, like you could talk to them. And then there were people who had a wild night, blacked out, and woke up in the center.” While Erik was making his rounds, he witnessed a blonde woman run out of her room and scream, “Where the fuck am I? Where the fuck am I? I was partying in Daytona last night, and I wake up here? What the fuck is going on?”

“She was clearly normal,” Erik said, “but totally disoriented.”

Several hours later, the patients were taken to the cafeteria for lunch, where Erik learned that the man he had been ordered to sleep next to earlier that morning was a violent schizophrenic. “My roommate, this homeless black dude who seemed nice enough but had trouble talking, was rapping to himself, sort of rocking back and forth [in the cafeteria]. Then this white meth head with a bad lisp walked by the table, and the black guy jumped up and just started beating him,” Erik said. “People from the cafeteria and all these nurses and doctors tried to break it up, and then they injected the black guy with a horse tranquilizer and carried him out. It was like, ‘Holy shit. I don’t feel safe here.’”

Luckily for Erik, the same college counselor who’d taken him to the hospital also called his mother, who hopped on the next flight to Daytona Beach and drove straight to the facility. Nearly 24 hours after he’d been involuntarily committed for feeling a little depressed about his choice of major (and 48 hours after he’d taken acid), Erik was going to be released. But not before the center’s administrator could chastise him for leaving early. “I finally got a call to see the head of the center [after my mom got involved]” Erik said. “It was this lady. She said, ‘You’re obviously here for a reason, or else you wouldn’t be here. But the doctor says you’re good to go.’ Then she told me if it weren’t for my mom raising hell, I’d be stuck there for several more days.”

For two other people who contacted me, the intrusion was ultimately welcome, if disorienting and degrading.

Mark, a former law enforcement officer, developed an addiction to prescription pain killers while recovering from an injury. One afternoon, his parents stopped by his house to check on him and found Mark in a daze.

“When my family walked in and saw me on the couch staring at the TV, with the drugs in front of me, heard me slurring my words; they got scared,” Mark said. His family called 911. At the hospital, Mark’s parents refused to commit him to the hospitals psych ward, so a doctor employed the Baker Act.

“I felt so guilty about my parents worrying, so I kind of accepted my fate,” Mark said. “I thought if I played along it would help my family out.”

Over the course of nearly two weeks, Mark was interviewed multiple times by psychiatrists at the Florida hospital where he stayed. Every time, Mark answered that he was not a danger to himself or the people around him. When he wasn’t being evaluated, Mark watched TV and listened to the radio “all day” under the supervision of a “sitter.”

“Ninety percent of the time, it was a 60- or 70-year-old lady watching after me,” Mark said. “I don’t know what that woman would have done if I decided to get violent. All these ladies had was a whistle.“ During his stay, Mark had to use the bathroom with the door open and was not allowed to leave his room or be left unsupervised. “I could have left after three days. That’s when I was eating again. That’s when I felt good,” he said by phone. “But the psyche evals were spaced over the course of 11 days, so I had to stay.”

In addition to the two people I heard from who were arguably committed for the wrong reasons, I also spoke to a man who was committed after a brutal suicide attempt.

Before a psychiatrist could diagnose David with depression and drug addiction, he had to hit rock bottom. “I overdosed on 40 [prescription pills], half a bottle of whiskey, and half a bottle of cleaning solution to try and kill myself,” David said by phone. “While I was overdosing, I basically texted everyone in my phone to say goodbye.” After reading David’s text, his roommate called 911, and David was rushed to the local hospital.

“I was put in a hospital bed and told that I wasn’t going to die, there wasn’t any real threat, they just wanted to get everything out of my system first,” David said. Having visited the hospital for treatment on prior occasions, David soon realized that nurses treated suicide patients differently. When David could not provide a urine sample on his own, the attending nurse called for someone to hold David down while he forcefully inserted the catheter.

“I was fully conscious of that and it was really painful,” David said.

A short while later, a police officer visited David’s room and informed him he’d been admitted under the Baker Act for attempting suicide.

“I never received any information about what happened to me. Nobody told me about any treatment, nobody told me if my stomach was OK, nobody told me if they’d given me anything,” David said of his three-day stay. “My evaluation from the hospital psychiatrist was very cursory. It was basically, am I a threat to myself or others?”

When he was able to hold down food, the hospital offered to discharge David. He said yes.

“When it was time for me to be released, I was approached by an attending nurse, who said a cop was waiting outside,” David said. “The nurse told me they didn’t want me to be upset or surprised, but I was going to be put in handcuffs, put in the back of a squad car, and taken to a mental health facility at the county jail.” The same facility that Eric was taken to several months earlier.

“I told them that wasn’t what I signed up for,” David said. “I told them I would do my in-patient at the hospital because I was terrified of going to a prison mental health facility, and the idea of being put in handcuffs and thrown in the back of a squad car was horrible.”

After being checked into the mental health wing of the hospital for an in-patient stay, David was allowed to shower for the first time in three days. He has since undergone treatment for addiction and depression.

Both Mark and David found a silver lining in their involuntary commitment experiences.

“In my case, I feel now that involuntary commitment was an important stage in my recovery and, in essence, saved my life,” David wrote in an e-mail. “It goes along with the idea, people who are crazy don’t know they’re crazy. I would never have checked into rehab or sought out psychiatry, if it hadn’t been for the wake up call of being locked in a mental health facility.” Likewise, Mark said that his 11-day stay helped him “detox” from pain killers.

Erik begged to differ. Before his mother picked him up, he got one last look at the hinterlands of involuntary commitment. “I passed a room where the same black dude who was taken down at lunch was strapped to a table. I asked the guard how long he was going to be like that, and he said, ‘He’s in there for 24 hours, and then we just let him go,’” Erik said. “There’s no correction, there’s no reason to anything.”

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