Local mental health bill awaits governor’s signature

Published 9:03 pm Monday, June 3, 2019

A bill that would allow Pike County law enforcement officers to transport individuals possibly suffering from mental health issues for hospital evaluation passed both houses of the Alabama Legislature Friday.

The bill only lacks the signature of Gov. Ivey to become official in Pike County, with the law going into effect 90 days after it is passed.

Probate Judge Michael Bunn said the bill will allow officers to take people who may be suffering from a mental illness to get the help they need more efficiently.

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“Essentially, what it provides is a mechanism for law enforcement, when encountering someone who is presenting symptoms of a mental illness, to be able to take that person to the hospital to be evaluated,” Bunn said. “If the hospital finds that they are suffering a mental illness, the normal process can come into play whereby a commitment starts.”

Bunn said the current system does not give law enforcement officers the authority or protection to transport someone having a mental health crisis to the hospital.

“If law enforcement comes upon somebody bleeding from a gunshot wound who doesn’t have the ability to talk, officers can take that person for treatment, with no consequences,” Bunn said. “But if somebody is having a mental health crisis, our first responders have no authority or protection to take that person in for help.”

As written, the law would allow law enforcement and medical personnel to place individuals on a 72-hour involuntary hold for evaluation in cases of suspected mental health issues or crisis. Modeled after Florida’s Baker Act, the law provides liability protection for first responders and health professionals, while seeking to protect the due process and rights of the individuals with suspected mental health issues. Currently, Alabama code provides for involuntary commitment of an individual for inpatient or outpatient treatment of a mental illness only under order of a probate judge.

Bunn said the hope is to get people help pre-emptively instead of after a crime has been committed.

“This gives us the ability to get people faster treatment and faster evaluation, and reduce situations where somebody’s mental illness may become a criminal problem because they have acted out,” Bunn said. “This will convert that into treatment and evaluation instead of end up having somebody going to jail.”

Sheriff Russell Thomas said the current process is a long, complicated process that is not in the best interests of individuals suffering from mental health problems or the officers involved.

“This is another avenue to be able to help a person that is in need, but doesn’t realize it in the situations where we encounter them,” Thomas said. “It gives law enforcement immediate relief not tying up a deputy for six or seven hours, and it gives the individual needing care immediate care rather than the traditional way and the suffering they go through at courthouse trying to get everybody together.”

Rep. Wes Allen, R-Pike, and former probate judge, said he was proud to support the bill.

“This local act will help address those individuals who suffer with the most acute and severe cases of mental illnesses,” Allen said. “The enacting of this law took a lot of teamwork. Mental illness is a serious issue that we need to continue to work to address.”

Bunn said the bill was a joint effort of the probate office, Allen, local law enforcement, the Pike County Commission, East Central Mental Health and others.

“We can’t thank them all enough,” Bunn said. “Everybody understood the value of finding a way to help people deal with mental illness in a compassionate way that doesn’t cause them more problems.”