Mental Health Commitment in Iowa

Under Iowa law, a person who is “seriously mentally impaired” can be taken into custody and committed to a mental health treatment hospital until they are no longer seriously mentally impaired.

Iowa Code Section 229 governs the process of civil commitment for a person who is seriously mentally impaired. That portion of the Iowa Code defines the term “seriously mentally impaired” to mean the following:

“Seriously mentally impaired” or “serious mental impairment” describesthe condition of a person with mental illness and because of that illness lacks sufficient judgment to make responsible decisions with respect to the person’s hospitalization or treatment, and who because of that illness meets any of the following criteria:
a. Is likely to physically injure the person’s self or others if allowed to remain at liberty without treatment.

b. Is likely to inflict serious emotional injury on members of the person’s family or others who lack reasonable opportunity to
avoid contact with the person with mental illness if the person with mental illness is allowed to remain at liberty without treatment.

c. Is unable to satisfy the person’s needs for nourishment, clothing, essential medical care, or shelter so that it is likely that the person will suffer physical injury, physical debilitation, or death.

When a person is alleged to be seriously mentally impaired, another person (called the Applicant) can seek to have the the allegedly seriously mentally impaired person committed by the court.  A hearing is held to determine whether the person is actually seriously mentally impaired, and if so they are committed by the court to a treatment facility until such a time as they are no longer seriously mentally impaired.

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In situations where there is an emergency, the Iowa district court can order that a person be hospitalized before the hearing takes place. There is also authority for others (such as police officers and doctors) to make such a determination when circumstances are such that a judge or magistrate cannot be involved due to the emergency nature of the situation.  Such emergency hospitalization is proper when there is a reasonable belief that a person is mentally ill, and because of that illness is likely to physically injure the person’s self or others if not immediately detained.

In situations where the person is also suffering from substance abuse issues, they may be subject to a “dual commitment” for both the mental impairment and substance abuse.

An Iowa mental health commitment may prevent a seriously mentally ill person from harming themselves or others, thereby saving a person’s life. Indeed, I have represented clients whose purpose was to obtain treatment for a mentally ill loved one who desperately needed help to avoid serious harm. By proceeding with the commitment, those clients were doing the best thing possible for their relative.

However, a mental health commitment that is not proper, and is instead part of scheme to cause problems for a person, can result in significant harm. I have also represented people who are the subject of false mental impairment allegations. Since a person who is committed for serious mental impairment loses certain rights (including the right to own a gun) and also may face difficulties in other legal cases (e.g. a custody case), there are situations where people will abuse this portion of the legal system and try to have a person who is not seriously mentally impaired committed.

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Regardless of which side of a mental health commitment a person may be on, it is a serious case that should be handled carefully and correctly in Iowa.