The Lessard decision forty years later

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In a recent special report, the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel took a look at developments since the Supreme Court’s Schmidt v. Lessard case, a seminal decision that rewrote the standards for when a person can be committed to a mental institution.

Prior to the Lessard decision, Wisconsin law allowed patients in mental institutions to be held up to five months without a hearing, with more than 90 percent of those hearings resulting in the person being committed. Forty years ago, a lawyer from Milwaukee Legal Services named Robert Blondis challenged the system, after taking up a case involving Alberta Lessard, a 51-year-old woman and former school teacher with schizophrenia whom a doctor had recommended be committed permanently.

“There were essentially no rights for people who had been committed,” Blondis said. “No hearing. No notice. No jury trial. No burden of proof. It was amazing to me.”

Three years later, the Supreme Court found that there must be an imminent physical danger in order to compel a person to a mental institution beyond their will.

The decision helped further a national shift from isolating people with mental illnesses in institutions and into more integrated settings. In 1955, there were 558,000 public psychiatric beds nationwide. In 2006, there were 40,000.

But societal fears of mental illnesses have changed little. Though only a fraction of people with mental illnesses nationwide poses a serious threat to others, the public view of people with mental illnesses continues to revolve around high profile violent instances, such as the cases of Seung-Hui Cho, the student who killed 32 other students at Virginia Tech University, and Jared Loughner, the individual who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

“People are scared of mental illness,” said Jon Lehrmann, head of the psychiatry department at the Medical College of Wisconsin. “The natural tendency is to look the other way.”

The first article in the series focuses on the history of the Lessard decision and its effects. The second article focuses on the balance between protecting public safety and the civil liberties of people with mental illnesses, and different programs being used to find this balance.
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that there are 3.6 million American adults with serious, untreated, mental illnesses. Of those individuals, 200,000 are homeless and 319,000 are in jails or prison.