How Florida’s Baker Act Impacts Suicide

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The Florida Mental Health Act of 1971, or the Baker Act, is a Florida law requiring people with mental illnesses who meet certain criteria to be held involuntarily for up to 72 hours in a mental health facility (never a jail) for evaluation, as reported by the Tampa Bay Times. The Baker Act can be invoked by law enforcement officials, judges, doctors, and mental health professionals.

Every state has its own laws regulating short-term emergency psychiatric commitment for individuals displaying dangerous signs of mental illness, according to Temple University’s Policy Surveillance Program.

Baker Act Criteria for Involuntary Mental Health Facility Admission

The Baker Act specifies that there should be a reason to think that a patient is mentally ill, that because of the mental illness the person has refused voluntary examination or is unable to determine whether such evaluation is needed and that without any treatment this person is likely to suffer from neglect or to harm themselves or others.

After the 72-hour holding time, the person can be released or referred to another treatment center with their consent or through a petition to the circuit court. Let’s say a petition is filed in court. What happens now? The patient will have a hearing within five days, and if the court finds the person to meet the criteria for continued involuntary commitment, they may be committed to a mental health facility for up to six months.

Is There a Link Between the Baker Act and Patient Suicides?

According to the Agency for Health Care Administration, “Suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in the United States.”

According to Medicaid data, half of the Baker Act examinations that occur annually are covered by Medicaid, and those patients are three times more likely to die by suicide when examined under the Baker Act. AHCA says that the problem lies in problems with diagnosis and access to key services when patients are released.

People working at mental health facilities or substance abuse treatment centers who came into contact with people being discharged from the Baker Act said that the resources provided to patients were inadequate upon leaving the facility. More than two-thirds of respondents thought that the accessibility of substance abuse treatment services for clients upon discharge was less than adequate or not adequate.

The Story of Tonya Williams

A story in the Orlando Sentinel details the 2015 story of Tonya Williams, 25, who stopped eating and threatened to kill herself. After her mother called 911, Williams was held for 72 hours and subsequently let go. The next day, after her mother begged that Williams be taken in again, Williams ran into traffic and killed herself. Her suicide followed eight years of struggling with mental illness.

“Of nearly 195,000 Floridians taken into custody for a Baker Act evaluation in fiscal year 2015–2016, the most recent data available, most were released with no follow-up,” according to the Sentinel.

What’s Needed

More education, more resources, more out-patient programming, and better follow-ups after release need to be enacted for the Baker Act to work properly

Every year, more people are “Baker Acted.” Although officials say this is because of more education of mental illness, it is leading to more deaths and more troubled outcomes. Refining the Baker Act is something Florida should, and must, do for the future of its residents.

By S. Nicole Lane

S. Nicole Lane is a freelance journalist based in the southside of Chicago where she covers women’s health, the LGBTQ voice, arts, and entertainment. Her byline can be found in Playboy, Rewire News, i-D, Broadly and various other corners of the internet. She is also a visual artist who works with small-scale sculptures.

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