NYC to involuntarily commit people with severe mental illness, mayor says

People struggling with severe mental illness will now be swept off the subway system and streets without their consent under a new directive issued by Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday. 

NYPD officers and emergency medical workers are now being trained on how to involuntarily transport these individuals in a mental health crisis to a hospital for evaluation. 

"It is not acceptable for us to see someone who clearly needs help and walk past," Adams said.

Reinterpreting Involuntary Commitment Law

Right now, a state public health law allows the city to involuntarily commit a person who seems to be a danger to themselves or others. The mayor said his administration is reinterpreting the law so that first responders can also involuntarily transport people who can't take care of themselves.

Adams said an individual is a threat to their own self if they are unable to meet their basic needs. 

"We can no longer deny the reality that untreated psychosis can be cruel and all-consuming condition that often requires involuntary intervention, supervised medical treatment, and long-term care," Adams said. 

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However, the city is not setting a clear standard on how to determine if a person is unable to take care of themselves. New York City officials say these criteria will be determined on a case-by-case basis and insist this is not a sweep of all homeless individuals off the street.

But mental health advocates say this is a dangerous line to walk. 

"I think we go down a very dangerous lane the moment that we are able to say that a police officer has 'discretion' to decide what type of care that our community members — who are human beings with dignity, autonomy and agency — need," Celina Trowell, an organizer for Homeless Union VOCAL New York, said.

Lack of Mental Health Resources

The city is so far leaving out quite a few of the most important details of this new mission, including how it will afford to boost mental health resources. Often when a homeless individual is experiencing a mental health crisis, they are committed to a hospital but then discharged a few days later without receiving outpatient treatment. 

This new plan would direct a hospital to keep the patient until they are stable and discharge them only when there is an actual plan in place for ongoing care. 

However, hospitals usually discharge these patients so quickly due to a lack of psychiatric beds. Currently, the city has over 400 psychiatric beds still offline from the pandemic and the state has provided only 50 empty beds. 

While the mayor pledged that everyone would have a bed, he also admitted it's a problem. 

"We need beds," Adams said. "There's no getting around that — we need beds."

Also many of the outpatient programs that help those struggling with mental illness have waiting lists.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and Vocal New York are among many advocacy groups blasting the city for not first investing in the resources to combat this crisis.

"We need more resources," Trowell said. "We don't need more boots on the ground. We need resources."

Hotline for Responders

The city will launch a hotline starting next year that a police officer or crisis team can call to speak to a mental health professional if they aren't sure if they should involuntarily transport someone in a crisis.

On top of that, Adams announced an 11-point legislative plan that he hopes state lawmakers would pass in the next session in Albany. 

This includes expanding Kendra's law so that hospital doctors consider not just how the person is acting at the moment of evaluation but also their treatment history and recent behavior in the community when it comes to court-ordered outpatient treatment. 

This is not the first time the mayor has made steps to clear homeless individuals off the subway. In February, Adams rolled out the "Subway Safety Plan" to help connect those experiencing homelessness to a shelter. On Tuesday, the mayor said the city has connected more than 3,000 people experiencing homelessness to shelters or safe havens.