Involuntary treatment for substance use disorder: A misguided response to the opioid crisis

Summary and Analysis

The debate highlighted in this editorial centers around the idea of help. Can you help someone whose freedom of choice has been taken away from them so they can be involuntarily committed for "help" for 90 days? And is it right, much less effective, to arrest a person because of substance abuse? The question would most likely proffer a host of responses but according to the evidence cited in this piece, the answer is no: it does not appear that involuntarily locking a person up is the solution to either the opioid crisis or to individuals' personal crises.

Excerpted from Harvard Health Publishing

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Recently, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker introduced “An Act Relative to Combatting Addiction, Accessing Treatment, Reducing Prescriptions, and Enhancing Prevention” (CARE Act) as part of a larger legislative package to tackle the state’s opioid crisis. The proposal would expand on the state’s existing involuntary commitment law, building on an already deeply-troubled system. Baker’s proposal is part of a misguided national trend to use involuntary commitment or other coercive treatment mechanisms to address the country’s opioid crisis.

Involuntary commitment for people with substance use disorder deprives them of liberty, fails to offer evidence-based treatment, and may leave patients worse off by making them vulnerable to overdose risk. But for the families or medical providers of individuals with substance use disorder, court-ordered involuntary commitment for their loved ones or patients may seem like an attractive option, or indeed the only viable one, to get them into treatment. Understanding the procedures, ramifications, and consequences of involuntary commitment is vital before initiating a process that deprives a person of liberty just as much as prison would.

What is the alternative?

There is far too little on offer in Massachusetts — or elsewhere — that would trigger the timely assistance and intensive case management necessary to support people in crisis. In the absence of such supports, involuntary commitment promises to help families that are desperate to find treatment for their loved ones. Unfortunately, the promise offered by involuntary treatment is a false one. Instead, we need to develop new approaches to support families and patients in non-coercive, evidence-driven ways.