Civil commitment in the United States

Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2010 Oct;7(10):30-40.


This article reviews the academic literature on the psychiatric practice of civil commitment. It provides an overview of the history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization in the United States-from the creation of the first asylum and the era of institutionalization to the movement of deinstitutionalization. The ethical conflict that the practice of involuntary hospitalization presents for providers, namely the conflict between the ethical duties of beneficence and respect for patient autonomy, is presented. The evolution of the United States commitment standards, from being based on a right to treatment for patients with mental illness to being based on dangerousness, as well as the implications that the changes in commitment criteria has had on patients and society, are discussed. Involuntary hospitalization of patient populations that present unique challenges for psychiatry (e.g., not guilty by reason of insanity acquittees, sex offenders, and individuals with eating disorders, substance use disorders, and personality disorders) is discussed. Finally, an overview of outpatient commitment is provided. By reading this article, one will learn the history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization in the United States and gain an understanding of the ethical issues that make civil commitment one of the most controversial practices in modern psychiatry.

Keywords: Civil commitment; deinstitutionalization; institutionalization; involuntary hospitalization.