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My loved one has a serious mental illness, and I am worried he might hurt himself. How can I help get him the medical care he needs?

By Samira Nazem on February 21, 2018
senior woman comforting man with depression at home

This guest blog post is by Samira Nazem of the Chicago Bar Foundation and Stephanie Ridella of the Center for Disability and Elder Law.

Watching a loved one struggle with mental illness can be very challenging, and it’s good that you want to get help for your loved one. Fortunately, Illinois law allows you to ask a judge to order a range of interventions, like:

  • Outpatient care,
  • Psychotropic medication, and
  • Electroconvulsive shock therapy.

Navigating the mental health laws can be confusing. There are many different paths available to you, each offering different legal remedies. However, you should know that you are not alone. In any given year, nearly one in 5 Americans will experience mental illness. When mental illness strikes, friends and family often struggle to understand the available services.

Guardianships, powers of attorney, and court-ordered treatment

Many people mistakenly think that becoming a guardian or getting power of attorney will allow them to make decisions about medical care and treatment. However, neither of those paths will give you the legal authority to order someone to get medical treatment or take medication. Only the court can order those remedies through a civil mental health proceeding.

The court can order any of the following things:

  • Admission to an inpatient mental health treatment facility,
  • Admission to an outpatient mental health treatment facility,
  • Alternative treatment in the community, and
  • Administration of psychotropic medication and electroconvulsive shock therapy.

Before the hearing: Filing a petition and certificate

Depending on the help you want for your loved one, you will need to file a special kind of court document called a "petition." During the court case, you will be the “petitioner” and the loved one for whom you are seeking help will be the “respondent.” While petitions are often filed by mental health providers or treating physicians, anyone who is 18 years or age or older can file a petition.

Learn more about each type of petition:

If you decide to file a petition, you will need to include the following:

  • Information about the respondent’s mental illness, including the signs and symptoms of the mental illness,
  • A description of any threatening or concerning behavior, and
  • Names and addresses of witnesses and other individuals who have related information.

You will also need to tell the court if you have a conflict or another legal proceeding involving the respondent.

In addition to the petition, you will need to file two certificates from a doctor, psychiatrist, clinical psychologist or licensed clinical social worker who examined the respondent. One of these certificates must be from a psychiatrist. The certificates must be from within the last 72 hours. The petition may be filed with or without the certificates, but no hearing will be set until the two certificates are completed.

If you are in Cook County, you can ask for help filing a petition from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Special Prosecutions Bureau, Seniors & Persons with Disabilities Unit. The phone number of this Unit is 312-603-8600. This Unit can help you decide whether a petition is appropriate and help complete the necessary court paperwork. There is no charge for this service.

During the hearing: Getting the Order

After you file your petition and supporting paperwork, the court will grant you a hearing, usually within a week or two. At the hearing, the respondent will be appointed a lawyer from the Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission. The State’s Attorney’s office will represent the People of the State of Illinois. The respondent can decide whether to appear in court. At least one psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker will usually testify at the hearing.

After the hearing, the judge will decide whether to enter a court order granting the relief you have requested for the respondent. Depending on the type of order, it may last for 90 to 180 days. If that time passes and your loved one still needs help, you can petition the court for an extension of the order.

After the hearing: Planning for the future

Once the respondent receives treatment and is stable, you may want to help him plan for the future. The respondent may want to consider signing a power of attorney or a mental health treatment declaration. At this time, you may also want to consider a guardianship. These are individual decisions that should be made by your loved one in consultation with friends and family and medical professionals.

When someone is experiencing a severe mental health episode, it may also lead to other unrelated legal needs. Episodes of serious mental illness can jeopardize someone’s housing, employment, and family life. This website has information on many other common legal problems that may be important as you help your loved one on the path to recovery and stability.

For assistance, contact:

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Chicago (312) 563-0445
Outside Chicago: (217) 522-1403

This information is posted as a public service by Illinois Legal Aid Online and its partners. Its purpose is to inform people of their legal rights and obligations. Talk to a lawyer if you have questions about how this information applies to you.