This month we sat down with Cornelius Kuteesa, our Care Coordinator/Peer Mentor, to discuss the Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) bill, his experience testifying at a hearing for the bill last month and how you can get involved. Cornelius is passionate about inclusive social policies and continues to use his background in social policy to advocate for vulnerable people in the community to make sure no one is left behind.
Q: What is the Assisted Outpatient Treatment bill and why is it important for the SMI community?
The Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) bill aims to offer a way to bring outpatient treatment to those who refuse or repeatedly stop treatment. Often patients refuse treatment because they cannot recognize that they are ill and need treatment, which results in them cycling through hospitalizations, jail and/or homelessness. Under the AOT bill, a civil court judge orders the patient to comply with a treatment plan that is designed by a provider during a consultation with the patient and orders the provider to provide the necessary services.
Q: Who is behind the bill and why?
Maryland state Senator Michael J. Hough and Maryland Delegate Karen Lewis Young sponsored this bill when Senator Hough found out about this issue firsthand when a family member suffered mental health issues and his family was unable to get them help.
Q: Who are local advocates for this bill?
Evelyn Burton and the Treatment Advocacy Center are the “big push” for the AOT bill. Evelyn has experienced this personally through a relative with a serious mental illness who struggles to comply with voluntary treatment due to the lack of insight caused by their illness. Evelyn mobilizes professionals and families to push for this bill through her role as Maryland Advocacy Chair for the Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance, and as board member at the Treatment Advocacy Center. Brian Stettin, Policy Director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, who works with AOT programs around the country, wrote the bill and negotiated with other organizations on amendments to gain their support.
Q: Why is the Assisted Outpatient Treatment bill so contested?
Even though Maryland is one of three states in the United States without Assisted Outpatient Treatment, the bill is still very contested by civil liberties organizations, the Office of the Maryland Public Defender, Mental Health Association, and On Our Own.
One of the prevailing arguments against the bill is that if passed, it would be exploited to violate patient’s rights such as one’s right to choose their own course of treatment. Some argue that AOT will be exploited by some elements to “put away” individuals into hospitals despite their conditions not being severe.
These arguments largely stem from a misunderstanding about Assisted Outpatient Treatment, which is a collaborative outpatient program that does not allow for forced treatment or change of hospital commitment criteria, as well as a lack of knowledge about the effects of serious mental illness on insight. Fortunately, there is no data to support opposition arguments and all data from Assisted Outpatient Treatment in other states reveal that AOT has been beneficial to the individuals with SMI, their families and the states.
Q: How did it come about that you and Help in the Home were asked to be part of addressing the Senate regarding the Assisted Outpatient Treatment bill?
Evelyn Burton, who is the Maryland Advocacy chair for the Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance, invited Help in the Home to submit a written testimony and testify in support of state legislation to establish an Assisted Outpatient Treatment pilot program in Maryland to demonstrate AOT’s great benefits. I was then asked to prepare and present the testimony from my own experience on how Assisted Outpatient Treatment could help some of the clients that I know and work with.
Q: What other advocates were there giving testimonies?
There were two other individuals whose family members suffer from SMI that were giving verbal testimonies during the bill hearing, as well as
- Brian Stettin – Policy Director, Treatment Advocacy Center
- Charles Richardson – MD retired psychiatrist
- Evelyn Burton – Maryland Advocacy Chair for the Schizophrenia and Psychosis Action Alliance
- Amanda Woodward, a psychiatric nurse
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Maryland
Q: What was your experience like and what was your biggest takeaway?
The opportunity to testify enabled myself and Help in the Home to contribute at a policy level towards the many other individuals/advocates’ efforts to raise awareness on this topic and the level of care for people in Maryland who are struggling with SMI. I was humbled to hear the horrible stories from family members whose loved ones suffer from SMI and have had situations where they’ve repeatedly been a danger to themselves or their families, because voluntary outpatient services had been unsuccessful in keeping them in treatment.
Seeing this bill to the finish line is going to be an uphill battle, but what brings me confidence and hope is that many people, including Evelyn Burton, have dedicated their lives to advocating for the bill’s passing.
Q: How can others get involved in advocating for this bill?
People should encourage their local representatives to support AOT because states that have AOT have seen significant improvements in the level of care for individuals with SMI, and there is sufficient evidence and data to support this.
Evelyn Burton is always looking out for and encouraging family members whose loved ones have faced similar struggles, as well as mental health professionals. Getting involved in the advocacy conversation with local legislators and sharing their testimonies is a powerful way to add to the conversation.
To volunteer or be added to Evelyn’s advocate list to receive advocacy updates send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 301-404-0680.
Watch the bill hearing here!
Check out previous blog posts on this topic:
- Our interview with the Treatment Advocacy Center: Read here!
- Guest blog with Evelyn Burton: Read here!
To learn more information about the Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT) bill, check out the Treatment Advocacy Center’s website!