Editorial: Privacy bill could hurt mentally ill

The Detroit News

The desire to protect the privacy of mental health patients is well placed; certainly troubled individuals should not be discouraged from seeking help by fear of public exposure. But in shielding patients from prying eyes, lawmakers must be careful they aren’t denying them the family support they might need.

A state House committee passed a bill that addresses the privacy concerns, but leaves open the possibility that family members might be shut out of a loved one’s care.

As this bill moves through the Legislature, a better balance must be struck.

Again, the instinct to protect privacy is appropriate. This bill does that, in requiring that information contained in a petition for involuntary hospitalization be kept completely confidential.

And it brings uniformity to a system in which various jurisdictions have different privacy standards.

Rep. Peter Lucido, R-Shelby Township, a sponsor of the bill, says the legislation notes some courts release petition details while others don’t.

The red flag in the bill is that family members could be caught up in barring third-party individuals from obtaining patient information. That might limit their ability to participate in a recovery plan.

And in an extreme case, critics say, law enforcement or government agents could arrest someone, claiming they need mental health treatment and are a threat to the public. Information about the incarceration could be kept private and away from those who would advocate for the patient.

Lawmakers have to build in due process protections, and an avenue to keep appropriate family members informed of the incarceration and treatment.

The House Republican Policy Office Bill Analysis points to the need to study the legislation carefully. It concludes in the argument for the bill that it will “… strengthen privacy protections for involuntary hospitalization records, which cover intensely personal matters…”

But it also warns that “…more confidentiality means decreased transparency. Official governmental records should be made public and open to inspection, including petitions for involuntary hospitalization … .”

Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union say they are comfortable with the bill.

Shelli Weisberg of the Michigan ACLU says commitment petitions should be private and confidential until it is determined that there is a public safety risk.

She says, from a due process standpoint, this is the type of information that can be damaging to someone if the accusation isn’t true but is still released to the public.

But better access is needed to help keep family members informed of where their loved ones are being treated, and how.

Lawmakers should be able to balance the two concerns.