Kendra's Law: Background information when reading While the City Slept

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While the City Slept

A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man's Descent into Madness

by Eli Sanders

While the City Slept by Eli Sanders X
While the City Slept by Eli Sanders
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2016, 336 pages
    Feb 2017, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
James Broderick

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Kendra's Law

This article relates to While the City Slept

Print Review

While the City Slept is a searing indictment of the mental health system in the United States, showing step-by-step how the failure of an overworked, underfunded bureaucracy led to a likely preventable human tragedy.

Mental Health Among the many challenges communities face is in ensuring that those experiencing mental illness get proper treatment. In most states, merely presenting symptoms is not enough. In fact, more often than not, unless the person has demonstrated violent behavior, nothing can be done to compel treatment. However, in 1999, New York State lawmakers approved "Kendra's Law," which has since been hailed by many professionals as a breakthrough in the way states administer mental health services.

Kendra's Law – named after Kendra Webdale, a 32-year-old woman who was pushed to her death in front of a New York City subway train in 1999 by a schizophrenic man who was not taking medication for his condition – allows judges to order certain mentally ill individuals to accept outpatient treatment and monitoring if they wish to remain at large in the community. If the individual declines, or fails to follow the court-ordered protocol, he or she can then be involuntarily committed to a mental health facility.

In addition to passing the law, New York state legislators also voted to increase funding for the state's mental health services – a two-pronged approach that helps people and saves money, argues Eli Sanders in While the City Slept:

Uniquely, the New York law also commits the state to funding better community treatment, so that people can be prevented from deteriorating in the first place, when possible, and then, when necessary, effectively handled through outpatient commitment. This system…has proven, so far, to be a money saver for New York taxpayers. Bouncing people around to various parts of the system, and then eventually incarcerating them is, it turns out, more expensive.

In a 2009 report, the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national non-profit devoted to eliminating barriers for access to timely and effective mental health treatment, compiled the results of separate studies on Kendra's law and found that it has been highly successful in achieving its aim of ensuring that those most in need, get treatment before they become a danger to themselves and others. The law "drastically reduces hospitalization, homelessness, arrest, and incarceration among people with severe psychiatric disorders, while increasing adherence to treatment and overall quality of life," the report states.

The law does have its critics, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and various psychiatric organizations, some of whom oppose the part that allows the court to involuntarily commit patients who don't follow the prescribed protocol. As one prominent psychologist has argued, "Forced treatment for people with mental illness has had a long and abusive history, both here in the United States and throughout the world (read our related 'Beyond the Book' about controversial psychiatric practices). No other medical specialty has the rights psychiatry and psychology do to take away a person's freedom in order to help `treat' that person."

But as Sanders notes in his book, if Washington State had such a law on its books in 2009 "three families, and the wide circle of humanity they intersected with, might have been spared tremendous anguish."

Picture from Deposit Photos

This "beyond the book article" relates to While the City Slept. It originally ran in March 2016 and has been updated for the February 2017 paperback edition.

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