Landmark legislation brings much-needed reform to New Jersey

New Jersey significantly reformed its mental illness treatment law on August 11th when Governor Corzine signed Senate Bill 735 into law. Senator Richard Codey and countless advocates battled for years to give New Jersey a way to better help those who refuse treatment because of incapacitating symptoms of illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. “Our goal is to minimize time in the hospital and keep patients in the least restrictive environment that will help foster their recovery,” said Codey.

The law improves New Jersey's ability to provide treatment to people with severe mental illnesses by allowing for outpatient commitment as an alternative to inpatient hospitalization. Outpatient commitment, also known as assisted outpatient treatment, is a less restrictive, less expensive treatment alternative for people who need intervention but do not require inpatient hospitalization. The timing of this law is critical as the state of New Jersey recently settled a case to release hundreds of psychiatric patients into the community over the next five years.

“This measure provides another mechanism to treat that small group of people who are extremely ill and unable to seek treatment voluntarily,” said James Pavle, executive director of the national Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit dedicated to removing barriers to timely and effective treatment of severe mental illnesses. “Because of the work of so many advocates, New Jersey is the forty-third state to have a provision allowing the use of this powerful treatment option.”

New York enacted a law to provide assisted outpatient treatment (outpatient commitment) in 1999 called Kendra’s Law. A comprehensive independent evaluation of that law recently conducted for the state confirms that the law is working to help those who need it. This independent evaluation proves that when implemented effectively, these types of laws save lives.

The bill will be phased in over three years. Each year, one-third of the state's counties will implement assisted outpatient treatment. Now New Jersey counties must put this powerful tool to good use, to improve the laws of individuals suffering from severe mental illness and to prevent further tragedies caused by untreated severe mental illnesses.

“As a mental health professional and a consumer of mental health services in New Jersey, I am pleased to see this law passed,” said Valerie Fox. “When a person is held in the grip of voices and delusions and has no use of free will, it is humane to care for the person until he/she regains the ability to make rational decisions.”

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