A fledgling Utah law designed to make it easier for family members to force a loved one with a mental illness into treatment has had a significant impact on the state's largest contract mental health provider, boosting involuntary commitments by 48 percent.

Since the Susan Gall Involuntary Commitment Act was passed in 2003, Valley Mental Health has experienced 366 involuntary commitments, compared with 247 in the same time period a year before.

The numbers were compiled for a report to the Legislature's Health and Human Services Interim Committee, which asked for a review of the effects of the law approved during the 2003 session.

Advocates for the mentally ill and their families pushed to lower the legal threshold to obtain involuntary commitments after the slaying of Susan Gall, a teacher who was killed with an ax by her son. The family had tried to have him committed for treatment of his mental illness but could not prove he was an "immediate" danger.

In the aftermath, Utah's law was changed so historical information on the person could be presented in an argument to force care for someone with a mental illness, even though they may not present an immediate risk to themselves or others.

"I do think it is working," said Vicki Cottrell, executive director of Utah's branch of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

"From what I am hearing from family members, it is not as frustrating to get a loved one into treatment if they are showing signs of danger and making threats."

For Valley Mental Health, however, the results are a mixed bag.

The facility's costs for the commitments was $493,000 and the center saw an increased demand for services, especially at the front end.

"The law didn't necessarily change how we do business, but the door at Valley opened wider," said chief operating officer Jim Whear. "There are a lot more people who walk through the front door."

Commitments don't necessarily mean people are "confined" to a secure setting against their will, but rather, they are ordered to participate in a prescribed treatment plan.

"Commitment does not mean institutionalization. It means providers are following up with people and they are not letting as many fall through the cracks," Cottrell said.

For Valley, however, the practical effects have presented a challenge, Whear said.

"Depending on the situation, it's not good for anyone to get scooped up and have their rights taken away and put in a hospital against their will," he said. "It sometimes puts the mental health center in an adversarial position with the client. We become the enforcer."

While awkward, Whear said, commitments do work for most people.

"It does meet an immediate community need. For those who are very ill, who cannot make decisions for themselves, it is helpful to get them into a stabilizing environment. . . . For 70 to 80 percent, it is helpful. In the rest of the cases it is harmful and expensive."


E-mail: amyjoi@desnews.com