As I sat in my home office, I heard what sounded like hundreds of police sirens blaring and wondered what could be happening in our sleepy community. Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School is 7 miles from me, and I soon found out. Our city has been reeling since 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz allegedly gunned down 17 people in Parkland.
We’re desperate to find a solution, and Florida officials want to toughen Baker Act laws in hopes of stopping people like Cruz from going on murderous rampages. That sounds great on paper, but I’m not on board.
I’ve been Baker-Acted, and my experience was akin to a time-out for mentally ill adults. It left me angry and distrustful. How would it affect someone prone to violence?
Named for Maxine Baker, the state representative who introduced the law in 1971, Florida’s Baker Act gives law enforcement officers and medical professionals the ability to involuntarily admit people for psychiatric examination for up to 72 hours. In theory, it makes sense to hold people who are a danger to themselves or the people around them, and it’s used widely. According to the Baker Act Reporting Center, nearly 195,000 involuntary examinations took place in Florida during the 2015-16 fiscal year. But whether you’re a danger to yourself is at the discretion of the officials you interact with, which leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
In September, I walked into a hospital emergency room because I couldn’t reach my therapist and wanted a professional’s advice about worrisome intrusive thoughts. I didn’t have any plans to hurt myself, but after I mentioned suicidal ideation, I was told I wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital because they’d be liable if anything happened to me.
I whimpered that I wanted to go home. A nurse asked me if I’d heard of the Baker Act and told me I wasn’t going anywhere. I handed my belongings to my husband and headed to the psychiatric emergency room where I was injected with anti-anxiety drug Ativan because I couldn’t stop crying.
My experience with Florida’s mental health system left me bitter, and I’m a relatively privileged 24-year-old with a stable support system and no proclivity toward violence. As I began to talk to friends about my hospital stay, they shared their own involuntary commitment horror stories –– watching loved ones being admitted against their will and released with little support.
A 2015 column from the Florida Times-Union titled "Florida’s Baker Act is overused, inefficient and inadequate" explores the complications the law has wrought: "Over the past decade, the number of people Baker-Acted statewide has increased by 64 percent," it says. "Others contend such involuntary commitments are often abused and misused as well."
My five days in the psychiatric ward were overwhelmingly uneventful. I filled most of my time reading, playing board games and watching CNN. The on-call psychiatrist switched me to a voluntary patient 12 hours after I was admitted, but I was told I’d likely end up in court if I tried to leave without authorization from hospital staff –– doctors can get a judge’s permission to extend the involuntary hold beyond 72 hours.
Most of the people on the floor were like me –– ordinary people with 9-to-5 jobs who were there because we had to be. I sang karaoke, practiced meditation and tried to remain patient as I waited for a team of doctors, nurses and social workers to deem me ready to leave. The hospital was woefully understaffed, and I rarely interacted with medical professionals aside from the counselors who led classes about music therapy and deep breathing techniques. The Orlando Sentinel reports that the majority of people admitted under the Baker Act are released without any follow-up.
I live right outside of Parkland, and the days have been filled with the solemnness that inevitably follows a small-town tragedy. I spent my Valentine’s Day interviewing students, parents and officials near the school’s campus as a freelance journalist, but I’ve been processing the tragedy in the days since. I want to see an end to mass shootings, but after being involuntarily admitted myself, I am puzzled by the suggestion that tougher commitment laws will bring any positive change.
I left the hospital angry that I’d been kept there against my will. I was furious that my agency was taken away because I voiced concern about my mental health. My hospital stay was unremarkable, and it also didn’t provide any groundbreaking insights into my mental health.
My medication regimen did not change, and the only condition for my release was scheduling a doctor’s appointment in the week following my stay. The Baker Act is not a long-term treatment plan –– it is a short-term stopgap to help people in serious mental distress.
Importantly, my fellow patients were not angry, racist or violent. They did not talk of hurting other people. Instead, we traded stories about our families and talked about what we missed most from home. Some people craved cigarettes and fast food; I wanted a good cup of coffee.
I do not know if Cruz is mentally ill. I do know that the majority of mass murderers are not. The Baker Act left me –– an easygoing, fortunate person with respect for authority –– angry at the system and the powers-that-be that make decisions.
What would it have done to someone like Cruz?
Ayana (Stewart) Lage, formerly a Tampa Bay Times staff writer, is a freelance writer who lives in Coconut Creek. Read an earlier piece she wrote for Perspective, "I Was A Well-adjusted, Mostly Happy 20-year-old. And Then I Wasn’t," at http://bit.ly/2GN1OpV