Sydney Morning Herald, Sat 07 Jun 1997

Mental health law changes opposed


People who spend money unwisely or damage their own reputation could be classified as mentally ill and forcibly taken away for treatment in an institution, under new mental health legislation due to come into effect within two weeks.

Under the new laws, police will be able to take people from their home to hospital for psychiatric assessment for three days or longer.

The changes to the Mental Health Act are strongly supported by relatives and friends of the mentally ill.

However, they are opposed by a range of interest groups, including the NSW Council for Civil Liberties and the Citizens' Commission on Human Rights.

"This law will mean a person can be held for three days and given psychiatric drugs - including electro-shock treatment - against their will," warned a spokeswoman for the citizens' commission, Ms Linda Fitzpatrick.

"We have a case of a woman who spent $2,000 after receiving a divorce settlement," she said. "Her husband was angry over the divorce and feeling vindictive, so he tried to get her committed for spending the money."

Such cases could become common, Ms Fitzpatrick said. The commission, which is backed by the Church of Scientology, has collected more than 5,000 signatures on a petition opposing the new law.

But the Minister for Health, Dr Refshauge, said the amendment meant people with psychological problems could be helped sooner because the definition of mental illness would be broadened.

Until now, people had to be a physical danger to themselves or others before they could be committed for treatment.

But under amendments to the Mental Health Act which have bipartisan support, the definition has been broadened to include people doing themselves financial damage or harm to their personal relations or reputation.

"Patients, families and neighbours have been crying out for years for early intervention when a patient's condition deteriorates," Dr Refshauge said.

The changes mean police can take someone from their home to hospital for psychiatric assessment instead of only from a public place.

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