mental health

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Mental health and the law interact in numerous ways. The term "competence" signifies a legal conclusion that an individual is capable of entering into a binding contract, transferring assets, or participating in a legal proceeding. The provision of mental health services is regulated and, to some extent, publicly supported.

Legal standards surround the process by which those who are mentally ill can be forced, against their will, to receive treatment. Statutes for involuntary commitment, whether denominated civil or criminal are subject to the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. This is because involuntary commitment severely infringes on a person's right to be free from governmental restraint and the right to not be confined unnecessarily. Courts have held that such statutes must bear some reasonable relation to the purpose for which the individual is committed.

Finally, and most conspicuously, the criminal justice system has, of necessity, to address issues of responsibility, appropriateness of trial and treatment in the light of mental health considerations.

States dictate how and when the insanity defense may be invoked in state court while the federal government does so for the federal court system. In 1984, the Insanity Defense Reform Act (18 U.S.C. § 17) was passed. Generally, it placed the burden of proving criminal insanity on the defendant and it cut on the use of mental illness as a defense. Today, insanity is rarely invoked and of those, only a quarter succeed.

U.S. Constitution

  • Fourteenth amendment
  • CRS Annotated Constitution

Additional Resources:

  • Laws related to Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, SAMHSA
  • New York State Mental Hygiene Legal Services (MHLS) 
  • New York State Mental Hygiene Law 
  • Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law
  • Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy

[Last updated in July of 2023 by the Wex Definitions Team]