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Education Homelessness Lessons Medicine NYC Policy

Involuntary Commitment (V).

Recall that the first scenario described a homeless woman who did not seem inclined to move to shelter despite the forecast of a heavy snowstorm. How would you apply involuntary commitment criteria?

1. Does this person want to harm himself or someone else?

There was no evidence at that time to suggest that she was considering suicide or homicide. One might wonder about grave disability, as her behavior in that context was not consistent with most other homeless people at that time. (Because of the pending snowstorm, most of the homeless encampments were empty that morning.)

2. How imminent is this risk of harm to self or others?

Imminent. The snowstorm had already started and six inches were forecasted to cover the ground in the next few hours. If the snowstorm occurred as predicted and she did not move, she would be at significant risk of developing hypothermia, frostbite, or complications from both.

3. Are these behaviors due to a psychiatric condition?

Maybe.

She had mentioned one thing (“The government secrets are safe with me”) that might suggest a delusion, though we don’t really know what she meant when she said that. Her behavior suggests paranoia, though it is also understandable if people don’t want to talk to strangers.

Just because someone is homeless does not automatically mean that mental illness is present, though individuals who are chronically homeless are more likely to have a mental illness. Given what we knew about her, it seemed more likely than not that she has a psychiatric condition.

Related: Will hospitalization help treat the underlying psychiatric condition?

Maybe.

If it isn’t clear if she has a psychiatric condition, then it isn’t clear if hospitalization would help.

So what actually happened?


The outreach workers working with me wanted to send her to the hospital for evaluation and treatment. I wasn’t confident that she would actually be hospitalized. If I was working in an psychiatric emergency room, I probably would have released her. Her presentation did not seem to meet a minimum threshold for dangerousness, though she did not appear well.

The snow continued to fall. No one said anything. I excused myself to step away and consider the options.

I was worried about her. She had reported that she had been homeless for decades in New York; this wasn’t the first major snowstorm to hit the area. However, she was now older and just because she survived past snowstorms did not mean that she would survive this one. Furthermore, other individuals with comparable experience with homelessness had abandoned their campsites that morning—why hadn’t she?

In New York State, two physicians are required to detain a person against her will. If I began the process in the street, the emergency room psychiatrist could either complete the process or reject my proposal and release the individual.

With reluctance, I ultimately began the process for involuntary commitment. I was not convinced that she needed hospitalization, though I knew that the process would take several hours. Hopefully, the snow storm would blow through in that time.


She wasn’t pleased when the ambulance arrived (“I’m fine… I’m fine…”), though she did not resist the paramedics. I sat in the back of the ambulance with her. She was shivering. Neither one of us said anything; what could we talk about?

“So… what do you think of this weather we’re having?”

Upon arrival at the emergency room, I gave a brief report and the commitment paperwork to the psychiatrist on duty. The psychiatrist commented that he had never seen her before, which did not surprise me: Sometimes the most vulnerable and ill individuals never interact with the health care system.

“From what you’re telling me, I don’t think we’re going to detain her,” the emergency room psychiatrist said.

“I understand.”

A guard and a nurse asked her to empty out her pockets and remove her parka. She did not balk. Though I knew she was thin, I was taken aback with just how slender her frame was.


The snowstorm blew through. Close to eight inches collected on the ground. The rare pedestrian dashed across the empty streets through the blurry grey air.

I got a phone call as the storm was ending.

“We’re not going to hospitalize her; there’s not enough.”

“That’s fine. Thanks for letting me know.”


The next time I saw her she was standing on a corner, her hands in the pockets of that same parka. When I greeted her, she turned around and walked away quickly. She spurned my greetings for nearly three months.

I understood and could not blame her.

Only after three months did she finally agree to talk with me. One brisk morning, while she was still tucked under the plastic bags filled with paper, she finally told me her story. She probably demonstrated significant psychiatric symptoms in the past (and was probably diagnosed with schizophrenia), though she experienced less symptoms now. She still didn’t want housing because she believed that she didn’t deserve housing.

I left New York and she remained. I still think about her occasionally and wonder if she is still alive.