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Panel OKs letting counselors commit people

A state Senate panel unanimously approved a bill Tuesday that would allow licensed professional counselors to make involuntary commitments of people with mental illness or an addiction.

The licensed professional counselors would join physicians, psychologists, clinical social workers and clinical nurse specialists in being able to order involuntary treatment in Georgia.

A similar bill passed the Senate last year but failed to clear the House.

Counselors were the only ones to testify before the Senate Health and Human Services committee on the proposed measure, Senate Bill 65.

Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford), who chairs the committee, is also sponsor of the bill. Georgia’s mental health system, she noted, is “in a transitional stage,’’ in the wake of Georgia’s agreements with the U.S. Justice Department to improve care for people with mental illness and developmental disabilities.

Separately, a leading consumer advocate for people with mental illness told GHN that she opposes the legislation. “I think it’s a bad idea to open up the ability for more people to commit us to forced treatment,’’ said Sherry Jenkins Tucker, executive director of the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network. 

The counselors who testified before the panel said members of their profession are qualified to take on the responsibility of ordering people into treatment.

Mark Butcher, a Villa Rica counselor, told the panel that physicians currently rely on counselors to help as experts during the commitment process. “It’s a scramble sometimes to find a doctor’’ to approve a mental health commitment, he added.

As part of the process, a “1013’’ form is filled out, wherein the professional says the individual appears to be mentally ill and presents a substantial risk of imminent harm to others or to himself.

Carlene Taylor, a counselor in St. Marys, testified that “it takes very detailed training to determine dangerousness’’ in cases of possibly suicidal individuals.

Patients who are ordered into treatment and have insurance generally go to private providers, she told the panel. Those who have no coverage, such as the poor, are sent to government-sponsored organizations, including state hospitals.

Greg Kirk of Americus, a past president of the Licensed Professional Counselors Association of Georgia, said the counselors all have master’s degrees and three or four years of training under licensed professionals, and all of them must pass a national exam.

State Sen. Nan Orrock (D-Atlanta) noted that over the years, more professional groups in Georgia have been given the right to approve involuntary treatment. “I think this is the right direction to go.’’

“We need more investment in mental health services,’’ Orrock added.

Tucker said expanding the legal authority of counselors is not the best approach to helping the mentally ill. She said the emphasis should instead be on providing more consumer mental health services in the community, so people can “access what they need to recover.’’

“In many situations,’’ she said, “people cry for help and can’t get it.’’

Tucker pointed to recent high-profile crimes in which the perpetrators had — or were believed to have — mental illness. These tragedies have increased Americans’ fears about the mentally ill and created an atmosphere ‘‘where discrimination and stigma are more rampant,’’ she said.

That situation has harmed the consumer mental health movement, Tucker said.