Lawmakers want to speed up the process for committing West Virginians in mental health crises to hospitals

Feb. 12—In 2022, more than 600 West Virginians were committed to psychiatric hospitals without their consent because a local court official found they were suicidal or a danger to others.

Lawmakers want to speed up the involuntary commitment process by requiring that hearings be held through video conferencing. But some who take part in these hearings worry the change could result in more mistakes during a process that decides a person's freedom.

People like police officers, family members or health care providers can file applications with a local official — usually a magistrate judge or mental hygiene commissioner — to have West Virginians involuntarily committed to psychiatric hospitals. Commissioners, local lawyers who are appointed part-time by judges, then hear from mental health professionals to determine whether someone should be committed.

But some people wait for hours in places like crowded emergency rooms or police stations for health care providers or mental hygiene commissioners to be available for hearings.

Del. Amy Summers, a Republican from Taylor County who chairs the House Health and Human Resources Committee, is sponsoring a bill that would allow state court officials to divide West Virginia up into multi-county regions and employ full-time mental hygiene commissioners.

Keith Hoover, deputy administrative director for the state Supreme Court, said in an interview that the goal is to have regional commissioners with specialized training who can make better decisions about when to commit someone.

"This is now their area of expertise," he said.

The bill would also allow hearings to be conducted over video conference unless the commissioner orders an in-person hearing. Lawmakers had asked Supreme Court officials to develop a proposal to speed up the involuntary commitment process. The bill is based on that proposal.

"It's really just to provide a consistent mental hygiene program around the whole state and to have access to mental hygiene commissioners 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365," Summers said. She said that shortening the time period could get the person released or into treatment more quickly.

But some lawyers who've taken part in these hearings say speeding up the process could introduce more errors.

Evan Dove, a Fayette County mental hygiene commissioner, said he doesn't decide to commit people lightly. But in short virtual hearings, it's easier for the person to put on a facade.

He recalled a virtual hearing during the Covid-19 pandemic with a young woman who had no prior mental health history.

"She, through the virtual process, appeared to be absolutely fine," Dove said. "I let her go and she hung herself two hours later."

In Wood County, hearings are already held over video conference and public defenders represent those who may be committed.

Angela Doss, a public defender for Wood and Wirt counties, said that often, the client is already in a hospital and wearing a hospital gown, and that the around-the-clock nature of the proceedings means attorneys and commissioners may be half-asleep.

"I don't think they should be happening in the middle of the night. I don't think they should be happening via video, and I don't think they should be happening at the hospital," she said. "I think it should be a judicial proceeding like anything else."

She said she would also like to see hearings be more dignified and for lawyers and for those involved to have more time to gather evidence and witnesses.

"Their liberty is at stake," she said.

In 2022, lawmakers took away a tool that allowed mental health commissioners to hold someone at a hospital for up to 24 hours before a hearing. Dove said this was a setback; the tool allowed medical professionals to determine if the person was displaying symptoms of a physical condition, such as dementia, rather than a mental health problem.

With little discussion, the House Health and Human Resources Committee advanced the bill last month; it's pending in the Judiciary Committee.

This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. Get stories like this delivered to your email inbox once a week; sign up for the free newsletter at mountainstatespotlight.org/newsletter