Regarding Patrick Hand’s Aug. 19 Local Opinions commentary, “For D.C.’s mentally ill, a legal right to suffer?”:

 Mr. Hand suggested that flaws in the District’s Ervin Act, which governs the involuntary admission of individuals with mental illness to psychiatric facilities, could be to blame for the death of Theodoric James. Mike DeBonis responded in an Aug. 22 blog post [“Should it be easier to commit D.C.’s mentally ill?”] that it is not clear that the District exhausted the legal tools that exist to protect someone who is a danger to himself and that we should wait for a full investigation before drawing conclusions. 

While I agree with Mr. DeBonis, the debate misses the larger point. Mr. Hand set up a false dichotomy between civil rights and treatment, suggesting that if we could more easily override individual choice, fewer people would suffer. But a psychiatric institution is in no way an automatic cure, and it can put an individual at risk of harm. Every day, I receive phone calls from individuals who are neglected or suffer physical and verbal abuse in psychiatric institutions.

Similarly, Mr. Hand’s argument presupposed that quality mental health treatment is readily available if individuals would simply consent. In reality, mental health clients are often told that there is a waiting list for therapy or that they can only speak to a psychiatrist once every three months. And now things could get worse, not better. Given the current fiscal outlook in the District, it’s not clear that community-based mental-health services will continue to meet demand.

Jennifer Lav, Washington

The writer is managing attorney of University Legal Services’s Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Health program.