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Mental health bill OK'd

Lawmakers have given final approval to a bill that would make it easier to commit a severely mentally ill person for treatment.

The bill would also give local community mental health centers about $932,000.

SB27, which was drafted by a special task force formed under a bill approved a year ago, passed the House on Monday, 56-15, two weeks after it passed the Senate.

The legislation, expected to be signed by Gov. Mike Leavitt, would lower the standard by which a judge determines whether to commit someone for treatment.

Under the bill, someone who is seriously mentally ill and poses a "substantial danger" to himself or others may be forced into psychiatric treatment. Under current law, a person can be committed only if he poses an "immediate danger" that must essentially be observed by police at the scene of an incident.

Judges under the new law would be able to take into account a person's past behavior and what his condition might deteriorate to if not forced to take medications and get treatment.

Some lawmakers remain troubled with a portion of the bill that they believe might be used as an excuse to round up the homeless and said they will be watching for abuses as the legislation is implemented this summer.

"This bill does exactly what we hoped it would do when we started last year," said Vicki Cottrell, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill , Utah. "I believe this bill would have saved Susan Gall's life."

Gall was a Salt Lake teacher allegedly killed in December 2001 by her bipolar son. Gall's son Leonard had stopped taking his medication, and she was trying to have him committed. Leonard Gall was found competent to stand trial, scheduled for June 3.

Cottrell and other mental health practitioners consider the Susan Gall Involuntary Commitment Amendments the opportunity they've needed for a long time to reach out to people who can deteriorate without medications and treatment.

The ability to do that will be improved with $233,000 state general fund money to help mental health centers stay in touch with people who need services. That money will be matched 3-to-1 by federal funds.

The bill also shortens the current time period from 10 court days to 10 calendar days that a judge would have to make a decision on commitment.