As Virginia wrestles with how to fix its mental health system after the massacre at Virginia Tech in April, one of the most crucial issues facing legislators and Gov. Timothy Kaine comes down to two words: “imminent danger.” The Washington Post says that judges and magistrates cannot order people into a treatment facility unless they meet this standard. Virginia is one of only five states that have such a high bar for commitment.
When a psychologist examined Seung Hui Cho in 2005, it was determined that Cho did not meet the imminent danger standard. He was never committed, and he never received treatment. On April 16, Cho killed 32 people and himself, bringing unprecedented scrutiny to the state’s fractured mental health system. A special legislative subcommittee will begin assessing and drafting legislation on the standard. Kaine and lawmakers in both parties have said they expect the issue to be a priority for the General Assembly in January. The state Supreme Court convened a mental health commission last year, with a task force focused on the imminent danger standard. The report is due soon. The problem is that imminent danger is “a vague term that’s inconsistently applied and overly restrictive,” said Bruce Cohen, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia on the Supreme Court task force. “Most states have gotten rid of it.”