Tag Archives: family guide to mental illness and the law

Is your emotional support animal really a service animal?

The answer to this question is usually no, your emotional support animal is not a service animal. Service animals are defined in the Americans With Disabilities Act as “any dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a disability, including a physical, sensory, psychiatric, intellectual, or other mental disability.”

Emotional support animals are typically not trained to “do work or perform tasks.” By their very nature and relationship with a particular human, they are comforting and understanding, but they weren’t trained to be that way and they don’t need to apply any skill or effort, as if it were work, to be that way.

Service animals, which are specifically dogs and occasionally miniature horses, are permitted on public transportation and in public facilities when they are on duty and under their handler’s control. Emotional support animals, because they do not perform tasks on behalf of their handler, such as opening doors or navigating to a location, are not required to be allowed into public facilities.

Your home, of course, is not a public facility, although there may be grounds and common areas outside of your unit that you share with other residents. The Fair Housing Act does require housing providers to permit emotional support animals in individual residents’ units when those residents have a disability, can prove that the animal satisfies a disability-related need, and request permission for the animal to live there as an accommodation for the disability. Read the linked document to find out about other factors that are considered that can outweigh a request to have an emotional support animal in a housing unit.

Sometimes, state laws provide additional access and protection for service animals and emotional support animals. Here is a chart where you can find your state’s laws about assistance animals.

Calling for the Police Crisis Intervention Officers

Call 911 to report a mental health-related emergency. Then as long as your local police department has CIT officers and you use a well-known mental health label (such as, mentally ill, manic, schizophrenic, or suicidal), the dispatcher should notify the police to send one of those specially trained crisis intervention officers to the scene. Here are some tips to best assure that the dispatcher does send the CIT:

You can specifically ask for crisis intervention officers with mental health training. Tell the dispatcher that the person you are calling about has a diagnosed mental illness, explain what that illness is, and help prepare the officer for the scene by giving the 911 operator all of the details about the current behavior:
• Does this person have a weapon?
• Is the person athletic or trained in martial arts?
• Give facts about their size.
• At this moment, is the person delusional, depressed, hallucinating, manic, spastic, or agitated?
• Provide very quick context for any statements that the person is making.
To help make the police encounter as safe as possible for everyone present, you or someone else should go outside to flag down the police and tell them where the building entrances are and where the event is happening inside the building. Even though you told everything to the dispatcher, give a quick descriptive update to the on-scene police as soon as you can. For example,

“My bipolar thirty-year-old son, Steve, threw me down the stairs. I don’t know if he took his medicine. He is shaking all over and won’t talk to any of us.”

“My twenty-five-year-old sister, Kay, is delusional. She is pulling everything off of the shelves and throwing it on the floor. I ran next door. Nobody else is in the house with her.”

“My husband, Ed, is depressed. He locked himself in the upstairs bathroom and is crying about an old business failure. He keeps saying angry things about Bob, but Bob is long gone. There is no reason to worry about Bob.”

Once the officer begins to work the scene, stay out of the way! Do not talk unless the officer asks you a question or calls on you to say something. The CIT officers know how to interact with people suffering from specific mental disturbances; they do not need you to translate for them. All police officers are trained to stabilize situations, so even if there is not a CIT officer present you should not interfere.

If the incident is not at your house or you are not even present, you can still get some mental health background information to the 911 dispatcher who will pass it along to police and will know to get a CIT officer on the scene. How will you know about the incident if you are not there? Maybe someone called you from the scene and said “Your relative is here and he’s out of control; someone just called 911.” Maybe you just got a worrisome text message or email from your relative.

Chapter 7 of Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law is titled “When Police Are Called to Help” and deals with two types of circumstances: those involving people with mental illness as victims of crime and those in which families seek help from police during a mental health crisis. This blog post contains one small excerpt from that chapter.


How to call 911 from out of town

If you are worried about someone who lives in a different 911 service area and seems to be experiencing serious mental health symptoms such as psychosis (seeing or hearing things that others around are not experiencing), suicidal thoughts, panic, or other troubles for which you want to summon emergency responders, this is how you can reach their 911 service:

1. Using a search engine, type the name of their city, or the nearest city if they live in a small town, and the phrase “crisis line” or “mental health crisis line” and call that number. When they answer just say, “I’m out of state and I need you to send 911 to this address____.” And then you can tell that crisis line operator, in a quick sentence or two, something about the mental health symptoms and your reason for seeking emergency help.

2. Using a search engine, type the name of their city, or the nearest city if they live in a small town, and the phrase “police phone number” to get the full phone number for a desk at the police department. You might land on a page with a list of multiple police phone numbers in that city. If you don’t know which division or department to choose, just call the “headquarters” number. Headquarters is the standard word for the main police office and anyone answering the phone there will know how to dispatch help.

Here are some examples of how these searches should look:

Springfield Tennessee police phone
Several states have cities called Springfield, so this example reminds you to include the state name when the city name is not unique.

Philadelphia crisis line
You don’t have to worry about the possibility that they use the word “hotline” or “number” or something similar in their name. All of these 24-hour mental health emergency services have the phrase “crisis line” built into their site so that search engines will get callers to them.

Abilene mental health crisis
Maybe it’s a “center” or a “clinic” or some other type of facility. Don’t worry about that technicality. If you put the city name and the words mental-health-line in your search, you will find a number that you can call immediately and reach someone who can summon local first responders for the person you are worried about.

What is your supportive role?

What is your most comfortable role when helping a family member who has a mental illness? This five-question survey will help you define your supportive style.

As you respond to each question, select the answer that best represents what you truly would do in the situation, not what you think you are supposed to do.

This survey was developed by author Linda Tashbook to accompany her book, Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law: A Practical Handbook (Oxford University Press, 2019).

States Using Prisons to Replace Mental Hospitals

In a January 2019 article titled Prisons are Housing Mental Health Patients Who’ve Committed No Crimes the American Bar Association’s ABA Journal describes legal cases in which people who are involuntarily committed for mental health treatment are taken to psychiatric facilities in prisons, rather than hospitals in the community, even though they have not been convicted of crimes. The article details the legal arguments that lawyers are using to fight against this practice and explains the economic and political circumstances that have led to this practice.

Although some people think that involuntary commitment is simply a medical determination, it is not. It is a legal order in which a medical assessment is primary evidence. But this legal order comes from civil court, not criminal court and it is not meant to subject patients to prison rules, prison clothing, or the other aspects of criminal punishment.

Chapter 5 of Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law: A Practical Handbook is about involuntary commitment. Chapter 12 is about the rights of people with mental illness in jails and prisons.

A Bad Time at Work

When mental health symptoms mix with pressures at work, an employee might do something regrettable: argue with a boss or customer, damage equipment, mess up a deal– the possibilities are endless.

When this kind of thing happens, the employee probably needs to add or change medications, have more intensive therapy, or change his or her mental health treatment in some other way. It is quite likely a good idea for this person to take time off under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)– especially if the job benefits include health insurance that will pay for the mental health treatment that will make this employee ready to return to work.

Chapter 16 of Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law explains how family members can assert a worker’s FMLA rights, what FMLA does for employees, and why it is good that FMLA can usually keep the job available until the employee’s health is resolved.


Treatment Standards

Every state has a “mental health code” containing laws about mental health treatment. These laws identify the various forms of voluntary and involuntary commitment available in the state, establish standards for evaluating and serving mental health patients, and explain how the state will enforce proper mental health treatment practices. Simply enter your state name and the phrase “mental health code” in a search engine to find your state’s laws on these topics.

When you get turned down for disability

After being denied SSI or SSDI disability benefits on the initial application and then again on the Request for Reconsideration, people with psychiatric conditions have a lot riding on their OHA hearings. The OHA hearing is the first real opportunity to show how mental health symptoms affect functioning.

If the hearing doesn’t result in benefits, do not despair! The disappointing letter from the Administrative Law Judge is really an instruction manual telling you how to prove the claim the next time.

Does it say that there are certain kinds of jobs that you should be able to do? Try those jobs– exactly those jobs or as close as you can get in your community. See what happens. If one works out, good! You’ll have an income. If none of them work out, you have proof for your next hearing that you aren’t able to do those jobs.

Does it say that you didn’t demonstrate certain symptoms? If you really do have those symptoms, think about who has seen them: friends, relatives, police, business owners… and get those people to write descriptive letters for your next hearing.

Chapter 2 of Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law has much more information about proving disability. Look for the book at your public library.

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