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Involuntary Commitment

Involuntary commitment is when someone is court-ordered to undergo treatment for the symptoms of severe mental health that they exhibit. In this article we will look at the history, the use, the effectiveness and the criticisms of involuntary commitment.


Roughly, up until around the mid-20th century, all committals to private and public psychiatric facilities were involuntary. One of the big movements in the 20th century that would have an impact on involuntary commitment is known as “deinstitutionalization”. This occurred during the 1960s where many of the psychiatric institutions were being shut down and people were being introduced back into the community.

Unfortunately, there were not significant amounts of out-patient programs created for these newly released individuals. Many of them would end up in prison or being homeless.

In the United States, during the case of O’Connor v. Donaldson it was determined that involuntary commitment violated a person’s civil rights. In the United States each state is in control of their mental health laws. Although, each state differs slightly from one another in regards to their mental health laws, generally speaking this trial resulted in giving more rights to the individual trying to be involuntarily committed. Even if they are committed they are not being treated but, rather, held for a number of days and assessed. If in that time period they do not present with behavior that deems them a harm to themselves or others then they are let go.

inside medical facility


Involuntary commitment is utilized when it has been determined by the laws of the court or the state that an individual’s mental health has deteriorated to the point where they are no longer able to make sound decisions for themselves anymore. In some countries, such as the United States, the criteria for an involuntary commitment is a bit more specific stating that when one is at risk of putting themselves or others in danger then they are to be committed against their will.

Recently, first aid training in mental health has been introduced into a number of countries, including the United States. This training would involve learning how to recognize certain behaviors that are specific to mental health issues. This type of training is being given medical workers, police officers, school administrators and teachers.


Determining whether or not someone may have a mental health issue that is affecting their decision making, or places themselves or others into danger can be hard to determine in meeting them for the first time and in a brief time period (for instance, when police are called in on a report of someone acting irrationally). It takes time to observe someone to be fully sure whether they need to be committed. Unfortunately, there are many cases in which someone was wrongfully committed and forced into treatment that was not necessary.  Having said that, there are many cases when an individual is blatantly a danger to themselves and others and involuntary commitment has helped to keep that individual and others in society from being at danger of losing their lives.


The largest criticism of involuntary commitment in the United States is it being in direct violation of an individual’s civil rights. As mentioned earlier one of the most popular cases that dealt with this issue was the O’Connor v. Donaldson case. Most states changed their mental health laws as a result of this, and the involuntary commitment became more of an assessment period, if anything. However, there are still those who say this is a violation against an individual’s civil rights.

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