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Controversial initiative: Mayor’s push to address mental illness crisis

Mayor faces backlash over his plan to remove mentally ill individuals from NYC streets, sparking debate over ethical and effective solutions.

In a controversial move, the New York City Mayor has intensified efforts to remove individuals with severe, untreated mental illness from the city’s streets and subways. The initiative, which gained momentum in 2023 following several high-profile crimes involving homeless individuals with mental health issues, allows for the involuntary hospitalization of those who appear to have a mental illness, even if they do not pose a threat to others.

The intersection of mental health, public safety, and individual rights is a complex landscape that demands careful navigation and compassionate solutions.

Kathryn Burrows

Under the new policy, individuals with severe untreated trauma, those who are unaware of their surroundings due to delusions, or those who are unaware of their physical condition or health can be detained against their will. The mayor has stated that the city has a “moral obligation” to assist these individuals. In December 2022, despite legal challenges from mental health organizations, the courts upheld the mayor’s actions.

Concerns over law enforcement’s involvement in mental health crises

Law enforcement officers now have the authority to remove mentally ill individuals who are unable to meet their basic living needs. Critics argue that the initiative raises concerns about police officers’ ability to handle mental health crises due to inadequate training effectively. Additionally, there are worries about the potential stigmatization and trauma faced by those who are involuntarily detained. Critics also argue that involuntary commitment by police can be traumatic and stigmatizing for the individual and their loved ones, as it often resembles an arrest, with people being handcuffed or restrained during transport to treatment facilities or courthouses for commitment hearings.

Racial disparities have also been highlighted, with New York City’s Stop, Question, and Frisk (SQF) program disproportionately targeting Black residents, resulting in a 2.72% increase in forced psychiatric hospitalizations for this demographic.

The relationship between law enforcement and individuals with mental illness has long been fraught with issues, often leading to violent encounters, arrests, imprisonment, and even deaths in police custody. Since 2021, the New York City Police Department has been involved in the deaths of 104 individuals due to erratic behavior or mental health crises, according to Mapping Police Violence.

Credit. Midjourney

Involuntary psychiatric holds and the debate over NYC’s new mandate

While involuntary psychiatric holds are legal in all U.S. states, the specifics of these laws vary. In New York City, the Mayor’s new mandate allows police to place individuals who become violent due to mental or emotional crises on psychiatric holds for up to 15 days.

Advocacy organizations representing the city’s homeless and mentally ill residents have opposed the mayor’s plan despite its backing by provisions in the Mental Hygiene Code and the Mental Involuntary Removal Act. Various city agencies, including the police department, social services, fire department, emergency medical technicians, transportation authority, and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, can enforce the removals.

Some experts suggest that alternative approaches, such as deploying mobile crisis teams with mental health professionals or implementing programs that involve individuals with lived experience of mental illness, may be more effective in de-escalating crises and reducing the need for law enforcement intervention and civil commitment.

As the city continues to grapple with this complex issue, it is clear that finding a solution that prioritizes the well-being and rights of individuals with mental illness while ensuring public safety will require a multifaceted approach and collaboration among various stakeholders.

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Journal reference

Burrows, K., & Hernandez, A. (2023). Social Death While Holding onto One’s Human Rights in New York City’s Streets. Journal of Urban Health100(4), 649-650. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11524-023-00761-8

Dr Kathryn Burrows, who holds a PhD in sociology from Portland State University, has been teaching at undergraduate and graduate levels since 2008. With 14 peer-reviewed papers and an edited volume on medical technology and society, her research specialises in the intersection of medicine, mental health, technology, and social control. As the proprietor of a sociology consulting business, she applies her expertise to real-world problems. Serving on the board of directors of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars, Dr Burrows is currently working on a book about psychiatric technology and surveillance.

Dr. Awilda Hernandez graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice and a minor in Spanish Literature in 2011. She completed a master’s degree in Intelligence Studies in 2014. In 2020, she graduated from Concordia University Wisconsin with a Doctorate in Education, focusing on the theoretical model of culturally relevant pedagogy. Her education is founded on Christian values, women’s empowerment, and leadership with a spirit of justice.