Mental health bill sponsored by Gudger, Shedd passes Legislature, goes to Ivey

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Left to right are Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman; Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview; and Chris Van Dyke, COO of WellStone Inc. (formerly Cullman Area Mental Health Authority) (Cullman Tribune file photos)

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Legislature on Thursday passed a bill that would allow people who have been temporarily committed for mental health reasons to be kept for further care, even after the expiration of their court-ordered commitments, under certain conditions.  The bill was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, while a partner bill was introduced in the House by Rep. Randall Shedd, R-Fairview.  Gudger’s was the first to get through, and went to Gov. Kay Ivey for signing with the support of both legislators, along with that of the Cullman area’s other legislators.

Friday morning, WellStone Inc. (formerly Cullman Area Mental Health Authority) issued the following statement:

A bill to improve the mental illness commitment system in Alabama is on its way to the governor’s desk.  SB 246, sponsored by Senator Garlan Gudger and Representative Randall Shedd, fixes a gap in the current outpatient commitment law.  Current law does not allow for a renewal of an outpatient commitment order. After 150 days the outpatient commitment ends, whether or not the person needs that order to continue.  SB 246 creates an option for the probate judge to renew the outpatient order for up to a year.

The recognition of the need for this change started here in Cullman County with Chris Van Dyke, chief operating officer of WellStone, the local community mental health center.  

Said Van Dyke, “After the two tragic incidents in Cullman County two years ago (Steve Griffith being murdered in his home by a person reported to be mentally ill, and a man who died in his home after setting it on fire in a stand-off with police), improving the system in Alabama was on the front of my mind all the time. I was asked by Randall Shedd to let him know if there was anything that could be done by the legislature to help keep these things from happening again.  This gap in our commitment system was something we could actually improve.  This bill probably would not have changed those two tragic deaths, but it will definitely help other situations that could end just as badly.”

“WellStone regularly sees people under outpatient commitment who have a history of refusal to continue medication or therapy services when not under a court order.  When these people come to the end of a 150-day outpatient commitment, they refuse all services. Then families, neighbors and the professionals at WellStone have to wait for another incident to happen to restart the commitment process.  It is those incidents that put the client and the people around them at risk of harm.  The new law will allow mental health centers to ask the judge to continue an outpatient commitment when it is clear that the person needs continuing court ordered treatment. 

“This is a simple fix which will make Alabama safer and save money in reduced hospitalizations and police involvement, not to mention the lost wages of family members living with a relative in crisis.  I appreciate the work and support of Rep. Shedd and Sen. Gudger to sponsor this bill and I am excited to see our legislative process work to improve our state.”

The bill was also supported by the Alabama Council for Behavioral Healthcare and the Alabama Probate Judges Association.

The synopsis attached to SB 246 reads:

“Existing law provides for the involuntary commitment of mentally ill persons to outpatient treatment, but does not provide a mechanism for recommitment of patients who are in need of further care after the expiration of the initial outpatient commitment order.  

“This bill would provide that a probate court, after a hearing, may enter a renewal order for involuntary commitment of mentally ill persons to a mental health facility, if needed, for a period not to exceed one year.”

In order for a recommitment to take place, three conditions listed in the bill must be met:

(1) The respondent is mentally ill.

(2) As a result of mental illness, the respondent will, if treatment is not continued, continue to suffer mental distress and will continue to experience deterioration of the ability to function independently.

(3) The respondent is unable to independently make a rational and informed decision as to whether or not he or she needs treatment for mental illness.

Friday afternoon, Gudger told The Tribune, “I am thankful to have a small part in helping mental health in Alabama.  Everyone is affected by mental health, whether it’s school safety issues, opioid crisis, overcrowding in our prisons, public safety.  Mental health is at the root of most of these issues.  Each year I plan on working for the betterment of mental health in Alabama.”

Said Shedd, “This legislation sets up a process to where they can continue to work with those that need it.  I introduced it in the House, Sen. Gudger introduced it in the Senate, and we passed his version out of the House yesterday.  It’s going on to the Governor to be signed. We appreciate (Rep.) Corey (Harbison, R-Good Hope) and (Rep.) Scott (Stadthagen, R-Hartselle) and all the other folks that helped us get it through.”

The full text of the bill can be found at https://legiscan.com/AL/text/SB246/2019.

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com