Students at Danbury High School were recently left stunned and confused by the senseless death of a classmate who took her own life by jumping from the fifth floor of the Danbury Fair Mall. There is nothing that can be said to make sense of tragedies like these, yet what makes them even more devastating is that we are prohibited from using the methods that could potentially prevent them.
As a former probate judge from neighboring Brookfield, and the parent of a child who has been treated for mental-health issues, I have long been aware that the laws for mental-health intervention in Connecticut are wholly inadequate and flawed; in fact, it is quite likely they contributed to the demise of this beautiful young woman.
What this young lady needed was a conservatorship, by which her parents could have sought an outpatient forced-medication order requiring her to take her medication in front of a parent each day, or else be hospitalized by order of the probate court. In states that allow such orders, there is a very high success rate as young people will usually choose compliance over the prospect of being committed to a hospital.
While we can never be certain of the outcome of any given individual situation, It is a fact that proper medication administered as directed by a mental-health professional greatly diminishes the likelihood that a person suffering from depression, anxiety, or other mental-health condition will reach the point of suicidal despair. Connecticut is one of only four states that does not provide for these kinds of orders. Stated another way for emphasis, 46 of 50 states allow the courts to issue these kinds of outpatient forced-medication orders. But whenever it is brought up in the Connecticut Legislature, the civil liberties lawyers raise their voices in protest, claiming that it would be a violation of the civil rights of the mentally disabled person.
What right is that exactly? The right to commit suicide when you are suffering from a mental disability? The right not to be mentally stable? The right to have a broken mind which causes you to hear voices telling you your life is worthless? My anger against these mental-health “advocates” is immense. A simple forced-medication order could very likely have saved the life of the Danbury teenager, but thanks to them, her parents did not have that option.
The other blatant omission in Connecticut is the lack of facilities for long-term stays needed to stabilize patients. This young woman had many short hospital stays to deal with emergency situations, but these acute stays cannot lead to true mental-health stability. Many times a stay of four to six months is necessary. We do not have the beds in this state to allow such lengthy stays because we shut down all our mental-health facilities. Think of the Newtown and Southbury facilities which were closed down under the promise that neighborhood homes would replace them. Nothing has replaced these facilities, nor can anything adequately restore the functions they fulfilled.
For example, to qualify for a long-term stay at the state mental-health facility in Middletown, a person needs to have had a certain number of psychiatric hospitalizations. Now think of a young person as a beautiful vase to hold flowers. We require that the vase be dropped several times before we sweep up the remains and then put the destroyed vase, now in a plastic bag, into the Middletown facility. Connecticut must begin to take the steps needed to correct its unacceptable treatment of the mentally disabled.
The state needs to reopen some of its mental-health facilities or build new ones, so there will be a sufficient number of beds to accommodate people suffering from mental disabilities. It needs to allow outpatient forced-medication orders by the probate courts NOW to prevent any more of these senseless tragedies. Please call the governor and your legislators and demand these changes, so we do not again lose one of our young people to this kind of unnecessary tragedy.
Retired Probate Judge Joseph P. Secola specializes in elder law and estate planning at Secola Law Offices in Brookfield.