Lawsuit Pushes Mental Health Reform in New Jersey

Advocates: State is Behind the Times

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    Sentencing is delayed for former Bridgeport schoolteacher in child pornography case.

    He's a self-taught pianist and a composer -- but Stephen Lenskold says that he's being treated like a lab rat.

    "It made me feel like an animal, that they didn't really care about me," said Lenskold.

    Lenskold is talking about the powerful medication that psychiatrists force him to take at the New Jersey state mental hospital where he's being treated.  He admits that he needs some medication for his mood and thought disorder but says the high dosages he's on cause his hands to shake and his memory to fade.

    "It's a struggle for me to remember, to recall facts," said Lenskold, 44.

    Lawyers Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit seeking reform in New Jersey's mental health system on behalf of patients like Lenskold.  The lawsuit argues that it's "appalling" to force powerful drugs on competent mental patients, without allowing them recourse to an independent review. Mental health advocates say 34 states -- including New York and Connecticut -- have such impartial reviews if competent mental patients object to medication.

    "The situation in New Jersey today is frozen in time," said attorney Michael Reisman of Kirkland Ellis LLP.

    The lawsuit blames medication for a New Jersey patient's death in 2007 and for overdoses and bad reactions suffered by dozens in a single state facility since 2006.

    "Unfortunately in a lot of cases in the state hospital, the objective is control as opposed to treatment," said Reisman. "And if you medicate somebody with a very high dose of an anti-psychotic chances are you are going to control that person."

    New Jersey officials declined to comment on the lawsuit. Spokeswoman Ellen Lovejoy, of the New Jersey Department of Human Services, said only: "It is our mission to provide recovery-oriented treatment while ensuring patients' civil rights and their safety as well as staff safety."

    The lawsuit claims that an existing appeals process for New Jersey mental patients is an "abject failure" that is neither independent nor impartial.

    "Here you have people in a psychiatric hospital who have the ability to give informed consent, and that's being denied to them," said attorney Emmett Dwyer of Disability Rights New Jersey.  "And that is a form of discrimination."

    An outside expert favors an independent review process but says sometimes psychiatrists insisting on certain medicine can benefit their patients.

    "In some rare instances, forcible treatment should be provided in order to allow patients to make conscientious and well-founded judgments for themselves," said Seton Law School Professor John Jacobi.

    As for Lenskold, he yearns to be on his own. He's been cleared to leave the state facility where he's been treated for the last three years but he's stuck until a suitable home is found. He wants to get on lower dosages so he can focus on bible studies.

    "I really want to do some good in this world," he said.